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Jean-Pierre SEGAL (CNRS ‘Gestion et Société’, UET), Frédéric BRUGGEMAN (Syndex, UET), André SOBCZAK(Audencia-Nantes, UET),

Claude Emmanuel TRIOMPHE (UET, EEC)

A. The cultural and legal context of social responsibility in France

A.1 An idea at the heart of conflicting traditions

The idea of corporate social responsibility is an old one, whose origins can be traced, in particular, to the paternalism of certain employers (such as Koechlin in Mulhouse and Schneider at Le Creusot) in the late nineteenth century. Even codes of conduct, which today are one of the instruments for the advancement of social responsibility, are not a recent phenomenon: since the beginning of the twentieth century, professional organizations – and commercial undertakings as well – have been adopting texts containing social standards that employers must observe. An analysis of these first codes of conduct shows that, in most cases, they were adopted in the wake of major failures, the undertakings’ objective being to ‘put their house in order’ rather than have the State do so with a heavier hand.

During the 1980s, one of the dominant ideas was to harmonize (or reconcile) economic and social policy. Some employers’ organizations, both within the French National Employers Confederation (‘CNPF’) and outside it, and various leading employers – such as A. Riboud, Chairman and Managing Director of Danone, in his book Modernisation: mode d’emploi – were at that time promoting the concept of the ‘corporate citizen’. Although that concept can be challenged on the ground that the status of citizen should be reserved to natural persons, there was evidence of greater involvement on the part of undertakings in civic life, whether it be by lobbying to exert an influence on the decisions made by the public authorities or providing sponsorship to support social, cultural and sporting activities. Apart from this external aspect, the idea of the corporate citizen was also reflected in 1982 by the legal recognition of various rights of self-expression for workers, who, according to the Auroux Report, must become citizens within the undertaking.

When the corporate social responsibility movement arrived from the United States in the early 1990s, therefore, it was able to draw upon a long-standing tradition in France, even though the social actors, more often than not, continued to refer to the term citoyenneté d’entreprise, ‘corporate citizenship’, which was more familiar to them. Even so, some aspects of the concept of CSR, as shaped by its Anglo-American background, did not readily fit into the French cultural landscape. There were at least two reasons for this, dating back to very ancient and relatively well preserved French traditions, even though various patterns of change had become apparent over the previous fifteen years or so, particularly in association with the integration of French society into Europe and, over and above that, into a globalized economy.

First, the traditional French conception of the role of the State as the embodiment of a rationality that expresses the public interest and, as such, the guarantor of a superior social responsibility (rather than a responsibility that merely complements that of the other actors) is very remote from the ideas of the free-thinking Anglo-Americans. Whereas the latter display suspicion of centralized authority and are more likely to place their trust in voluntary initiatives by civil society, the pattern of mistrust in France is reversed. The State and the Law are regarded as the guarantors of a principle of social responsibility that applies to all, while many initiatives emanating from civil society are perceived as campaigns – useful, perhaps, but nevertheless suspected of concealing vested interests. The same applies to the social dialogue, where the primacy of the legislature is regularly in conflict with the ‘autonomy’ of the social partners and the agreements drafted by them.

The legislator, in order to take account of this situation, did indeed come up in 1986 with the idea of the ‘derogation agreement’, but the very phrase says much about the principle and the primacy attaching to it. The social partners, for their part, have evolved a common position on collective negotiation which casts doubt both on the sharing of roles with the State and on the traditional regulatory hierarchy governing the relationships between national, sectoral and corporate agreements. The fact remains that the idea that some laws might merely define minimal thresholds, above which the social responsibility of the actors comes into play, would certainly come as a great shock to many people in France. It is a much more frequent custom there to turn to the public authorities with the demand that they should ‘face up to their responsibilities’ and, frequently, ‘lay down the law’ in order both to recognize a new social problem and to begin to address it. From that standpoint, it would be the State alone that could accommodate and direct a ‘multi-stakeholder forum’, as it is trying to do through institutions such as the Economic and Social Council and the Commissariat au Plan (Economic Plan Commission). But is this response to the challenge of CSR an adequate one?

On the other hand, the idea – a familiar one throughout much of Europe – of an ordered and sustainable compromise between the interests of all the interested parties, all of whom deserve to be taken into consideration, over and above their specific features and their differences, has long encountered many problems in France. In many areas, including labour relations, what we actually see is a culture of confrontation between the various interested parties, which makes the settlements and arbitration awards agreed upon immediately suspect as ‘compromises’ rather than as embodying equitable rulings. The prospect of constructing, within the framework of CSR, new cooperative relationships with ‘new actors’ may therefore appear less attractive, or more hazardous, in this context. But that is not to say that it should deter many undertakings, the social partners or other groups from embarking upon that road.

A.2 A legal framework to encourage corporate social responsibility

In most cases, socially responsible practices are regarded as commitments that have only purely moral value and are incapable of producing any legal effects. An analysis of French positive law, however, shows that social responsibility is exercised within an increasingly precise legal framework, particularly because the law encourages undertakings to adopt standards of social responsibility. These promptings may be addressed either to the investment funds, which then bring economic pressure to bear on the undertakings, or directly to the undertakings themselves.

A.2.1. An indirect form of encouragement: a duty of transparency for the investment funds

Several national legal systems among the States of the European Union require investment funds to specify whether they take account of social and environmental criteria when deciding on the placement of their investments. Bearing in mind the fact that savers are displaying an increasing interest in seeing their money managed in a socially responsible way,41 it might be thought that this duty of transparency would lead some funds to modify their investment policies. Indirectly, therefore, increased economic pressure is exerted on undertakings in search of investors to encourage them to acknowledge their social responsibility.

In France, the draft Loi sur l’épargne salariale (Payroll Savings Act), adopted at first reading by the Assemblée Nationale in October 2000, thus introduced a new Article L 444-7 into the Code du Travail (Employment Code), according to which undertakings for collective investment in transferable securities to which funds collected through corporate savings schemes, inter-enterprise savings schemes and voluntary joint payroll savings schemes are allocated were required to report annually on the extent to which they took account of social, environmental or ethical considerations both when selecting, retaining and disposing of the securities making up their portfolios and when exercising the rights attaching to the holding of those securities, such as voting rights. However, opposition in the Sénat caused the act as finally adopted to omit that provision, and made the annual report optional.42

The draft Loi sur le fonds de réserve pour les retraites (Pension Funds Act) followed a similar course. The government put forward a version according to which some of the funds could be invested in shares, with the proviso that the executive board of the managing undertaking should report regularly to the supervisory board and, in particular, when doing so, should outline how the general guidelines of the investment policy had taken account of social, environmental and ethical considerations.43 However, the Sénat rejected that provision, arguing that ‘although the ideas underlying this proposal are eminently generous, the fund must have a single, clear mission: helping to provide French people with financial support in retirement’.44
Although French positive law thus proves somewhat reluctant to introduce a duty of transparency for investment funds regarding the extent to which they take account of social and environmental criteria, it does nevertheless impose such a duty directly upon undertakings.

A.2.2 A direct form of encouragement: the duty of transparency for undertakings

The public authorities may decide to encourage corporate social responsibility by requiring undertakings to observe greater transparency in connection with their social and environmental practices. Without compelling them to adopt standards of social responsibility, this transparency is indubitably a very strong incentive for undertakings to formalize their social and environmental policies, in particular by adopting codes of conduct.

In France, the Loi sur les nouvelles régulations économiques (New Economic Regulations Act) of May 2001 added a new Article L 225-102-1 to the Commercial Code, making it mandatory for the board of directors or executive board of listed companies to present a yearly report to shareholders ‘on the manner in which the company takes account of the social and environmental consequences of its activities’.45 Thus, starting with the financial year ending 31 December 2002, all listed companies in France must prepare annual reports, taking account of the three aspects of sustainable development: economics, the environment and social affairs.

The implementing regulation of 20 February 2002 specifies the content of this report, electing not to provide a detailed list of social and environmental indicators but referring more generally to the aspects which the report must address. As far as the social aspects are concerned,46 the annual report must first of all reproduce various data from the company balance sheet,47 such as the size of the workforce, hirings, dismissals and working hours. Next, the report must give an account of relations with subcontractors, and must in particular state whether the company takes steps to encourage its subcontractors to comply with the fundamental social rules of the International Labour Organization. Finally, the report must specify the relations the undertaking maintains with society, associations and non-governmental organizations.

A.2.3 A labour law allowing room for corporate social responsibility

Although labour relations in France are conducted within a very comprehensive framework of legislation and agreements, there are areas in which undertakings have substantial scope to go beyond what is required of them by employment law. This is particularly the case with restructuring operations and the protection of health and safety in subcontracting relationships.

A.3 Social responsibility and restructuring

French law provides a very firm framework for labour relations and lays down a set of procedures and measures to be adopted when restructuring is decided upon. In brief, the following aspects may be recalled:

In all undertakings employing more than 50 people, the law requires the employer to set up a works council and organize elections every two years to enable the workforce to appoint their representatives to that council. These elections comprise two ballots, the first being reserved for the trade union organizations. If fewer than 50% of employees have voted, a second ballot is arranged, and is open to any list.

The works councils thus formed have to be informed of and consulted on all important decisions relating to the progress of the undertaking. The information and consultation procedure must be completed before the decision takes effect, which, in practice, means that it is impossible to implement any decision of importance to the life of the undertaking before the council has given its opinion, whether favourable or otherwise.
Restructuring operations are regarded as important events and, if they are liable to result in more than 10 dismissals in a company with more than 50 employees, French law requires that the works council be asked its opinion on the reasons for the proposed restructuring and on a mandatory redundancy programme geared ‘to avoiding dismissals or reducing the number thereof and encouraging the redeployment of employees whose dismissal cannot be avoided’ (Article L 321-4-1 of the Code du Travail). The works council has the right to appoint an expert – whom it has complete discretion to select – to analyse the situation of the undertaking and the proposed redundancy programme, and the information and consultation procedure takes place in the form of three meetings at which the management proposal and the expert’s report are discussed.
The constraints thus imposed upon undertakings are very great, in theory, but it is not uncommon for them to be paid lip service only. It very frequently happens that the proposed measures are not designed to avoid dismissals, and it is not unusual for the redundancy programme to be designed simply to transfer staff as quickly as possible to the public employment schemes (the National Employment Agency – ‘ANPE’). In these circumstances, then, corporate social responsibility must be assessed as a function of the true quality of the action taken, not merely from reading the documents.

A.4 Social and health/security responsibility in subcontracting relationships

At the present time, there are no social regulations as such governing subcontracting in France, but there are several independent sets of provisions:

  • an economic regulation of 1975 which is designed to protect subcontractors from economic problems encountered by their customers and ensure them a guarantee of payment;

  • a Loi sur le travail illégal (Unlawful Working Act), which requires every customer, when placing an order worth in excess of € 3000 – to ensure that his subcontractor complies with a number of administrative, social and fiscal obligations;

  • a number of provisions on transfers of undertakings (Article L 122-12 of the Code du Travail), reproducing the provisions of the European Directive on the same subject;

  • a provision in the Loi de modernisation sociale (Social Modernization Act) (Article L 432-1-2 of the Code du Travail), which requires the undertaking to notify its subcontractors of proposed restructuring operations.

To those provisions, which refer explicitly to subcontracting, the following may be added:

  • a regulation on health and safety (1992) at the workplace dealing with work done by an ‘external’ undertaking on the premises of another undertaking. These provisions envisage safety intervention ‘protocols’, joint inspections and a number of reciprocal obligations;

  • a very recent (2002) amendment to the legislation on health, safety and working conditions committees, designed to extend their jurisdiction to include subcontracting undertakings (a consequence, in particular, of the industrial accident at the TotalFinaElf factory in Toulouse which cast doubt upon the use of subcontractors for ‘risk’ work);
  • a general principle of employer liability in relation to everything that takes place on the undertaking’s ‘site’ (including the actions of subcontractors);

  • an increasing body of case law establishing the principle of ‘joint responsibility’ of two or more undertakings in connection with accidents at work.

On the other hand, there are as yet no provisions in any legislation, regulation or agreement governing the use of subcontractors in other countries, especially countries outside the European Union.

B. The case studies

B.1 Chèque déjeuner

B.1.1 Presentation of the undertaking

The undertaking considered here is an SME with a workforce of 200, based in the Paris region, and the parent company of a small group of subsidiaries based in Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania. It has the unusual feature of being a cooperative society, in which virtually all the employees are coopérateurs (cooperating members), it being obligatory to become a coopérateur after the first year’s employment with the undertaking. The employees are therefore shareholders and are regularly informed of the company’s progress, while at the same time they have an interest in its development.

The company is a growing one and manufactures a special type of voucher, the chèque déjeuner or luncheon voucher, for which it is issued with forgery-proof paper by the Imprimerie Nationale. The production process comprises printing the vouchers on this paper, cutting them up and combining them as a voucher booklet, after which they are packaged and shipped. This voucher is the group’s main product, but it also manufactures and distributes chèques domiciles (household vouchers), chèques services (service vouchers) and a range of ‘chèques loisirs’ (book tokens, record tokens and vouchers for cultural events).

B.1.2 A programme of changes designed to prepare for the company’s future while maintaining employment

The company is facing a major future change: the paper chèque déjeuner could be replaced by a magnetic card. There are three important facts in this context:

  • There is no certainty that the switch to magnetic cards will take place, but it is essential for the company to prepare for it, or face the risk of marginalization if the replacement occurs and the company is not ready for it.

  • If this change does take place, the detailed arrangements are uncertain. In particular, there is much uncertainty about how long the changeover will take – a few months or several years?

  • Finally, if the changeover does occur, 40 existing jobs (20% of the workforce) would be affected by it, while another 20 to 40 new jobs would be created, the new jobs being different from those lost.

The process under consideration here involves three severe constraints. First, it is out of the question for the company to fail to prepare for what would be a major technical change in its field of activity; secondly, the course, and especially the pace, of events following that change is uncertain; and thirdly, the change in product (from paper voucher to chip-card) would result in a change in the production process imposing severe technical constraints (the machinery that would have to be bought would be a substantial investment and its technical features would be determined by the companies that make it, which are major international groups). Finally, it should be noted that this process of preparation is still taking place.

The decision to embark upon the process designed to prepare the company for the transition to the chip-card was taken by a steering committee. The committee is not very different from the same type of structure in a conventional undertaking, except for one particularly important point: it is required to report to the general meeting of coopérateurs, which in the present case means virtually the entire staff. That decision was taken simultaneously with another, which the Chairman expressed in these terms: ‘No one will be left stranded in the course of this process.’

B.1.3 The tools of change: an atypical information process and conventional human resources management tools

In the wake of that decision, numerous initiatives have been put in place, among which three separate information processes can be identified: the first relates to the project steering committee, which receives regular reports on the progress of work; the second relates to the employees themselves, the information being channelled through a network of correspondents appointed in each of the company’s various departments; and the third relates to the works council.

  1. The provision of information to the steering committee takes place in the form of regular meetings and follow-up of the various activities undertaken.

  2. The correspondents receive information through the holding of regular meetings, each attended by some 20 people (or 10% of the company’s workforce), appointed from the staff of each department. Their role is to provide information to their fellow workers and act as a return conduit for questions and inquiries. The correspondents are copied in on everything presented to the steering committee.

  3. After being informed of the project as a whole, the works council is notified and the staff representatives are sent copies of the reports drafted by the steering committee.

All those we spoke to stressed the confidence that they have in one another and the importance of the quality and permanent nature of the information both for preserving that confidence and for ensuring that the process takes place as it should. However, it must be emphasized that this confidence existed before the present restructuring process was initiated.

At the same time, the question arose of how to ensure that the commitment not to leave anyone stranded was actually put into effect. A set of tools has been made available here, which are no different from the conventional tools of Gestion Prévisionnel des Emplois et des Compétences (Forecasting of Jobs and Skills – ‘GPEC’). The use of some of these tools (comparative organigrams) is in any case commonplace in redundancy procedures, especially those used at the start of the process:

  • the preparation of two mutually comparable organigrams, the first describing the current organization and the second the future organization, showing which jobs will be lost, which will be modified and which will be created;

  • an analysis of the jobs that will be lost;

  • an analysis of the jobs that will be created.

The further stages of the process are more atypical but nevertheless based on familiar human resources management tools:

  • identifying employees’ wishes with regard to career development;

  • comparison of skills of those occupying the jobs that will be lost and the skills required for the new jobs;

  • adoption of what is called a ‘matching’ process, designed to arrange internal careers for employees whose jobs will be lost.

This last point is important and requires some explanation. The idea of arranging career advancement by providing training for employees occupying jobs that are destined to disappear is nothing new. The difference in the current process lies in the organization of career paths that may require three or even four redeployments in order to deal with one case. In this process, the person concerned will not necessarily be the main beneficiary of the training activities provided. Thus, if job A is to be lost, the jobholder may be offered a related job B, whereas the occupant of that job will be offered a move to a newly created job. This multilevel movement (popularly known as jeu de taquin, after the popular ‘moving tile’ puzzle) is probably the cornerstone of the ongoing process.

B.1.4 Discussion of the case

Although the tools used are similar or identical to those used by GPEC, there are two methodological differences to be noted:

  • The use of time. The early announcement (in late 2001) of a process which will probably take effect early in 2004 allows time to arrange the changeovers.

  • The lack of any authoritarian decisions on individuals’ futures, apart from the identification of the jobs to be lost.

The second point is particularly worthy of attention, because it breaks what is usually an indissoluble link between two events: the loss of a job and the ending of the contract of employment.

The question of profit for the company has not been raised by the promoters of the operation (nor did they place their action in the context of corporate social responsibility, although they are trying to adopt a socially responsible attitude). It can, however, be approached from two angles: the necessary training activities will not cost more than the compensation that would be payable in the event of dismissal. But, at a deeper level, it is likely that the company will retain a know-how linked to its former activities.


B.2.1 Presentation of the case

ACOME is a medium-sized enterprise supplying products and systems to the telecommunications, motor and building industries. Based in a rural region of western France, it has a head office in Paris. ACOME employs about a thousand people and has an annual turnover of some € 200 million, of which exports account for 37%. In recent years, ACOME has set up commercial subsidiaries elsewhere in Europe and has also created two joint ventures, in China and Brazil, to support their major motor industry customer in those countries.

ACOME is the biggest workers’ production cooperative in France. Employees are required to become sociétaires (partners) after they have been with the company for three years. Its executives are elected each year at a general meeting. Employee turnout at the general meetings is very high, reflecting the value they attach to this prerogative. ACOME pays a substantial dividend to these shareholding employees (equivalent to several months’ wages in some years), while the wages it pays are themselves higher than is customary in the local region. Apart from this financial aspect, which of course plays its part in ACOME’s attractiveness to its staff, the company also tries, by means of a set of ‘good practices’, to ensure local sustainability of employment and a high-quality internal social dialogue.
ACOME was selected for a case study both because it is a medium-sized (as opposed to large) enterprise and because it is a workers’ production cooperative (as opposed to a conventional company). ACOME greatly facilitated our work by welcoming us to Mortain, in Normandy, where we were able to visit the whole of the industrial site. We were able to meet not only representatives of the board of directors but also middle management personnel and staff representatives. Copious documentation was made available to us.

B.2.2 A system that has proved quite successful in preserving jobs on the Mortain site

Over many years, ACOME has developed a strategy of diversification based on the applications to various sectors of the extrusion technology that is the core of its know-how, and in which it is continuing to invest. The company devotes 10% of its turnover to investment and R & D, maintains continuous relations with institutes of technology in its field, and devotes its research efforts to finding new applications for its core technologies.

Historically linked to the telephone industry (France Télécom, as a customer, accounted for up to 80% of its turnover), ACOME has successfully diversified into other sectors: today, telecommunications account for rather less than half the turnover, with electrical equipment for cars contributing 20% and wiring for the building industry 30%.
The originality of this strategy lies in the fact that the investments made, in the form of new buildings, the establishment of new know-how, the purchasing of new machinery and the canvassing of new customers, have deliberately been undertaken at the Mortain site in Normandy. Other strategies could clearly have been adopted, for example with a view to moving closer to the larger conurbations (benefiting both from the local job creation incentives offered there by the public authorities and from a larger labour pool) or even recruiting a less expensive workforce by delocation, as many of its competitors have done.
ACOME’s logic, conversely, has been driven not only by the ‘socially responsible’ attitude of its executives but also by the wishes of its entire workforce: the main concern of the company's elected executives, and the mandate given them each year by their sociétaires, is after all to ensure that the latter’s jobs are sustainable. Since the vast majority of them want to stay in Normandy, it is clearly appropriate to develop local employment and, indeed, to accept the consequences of that policy, which is based on the following lines:

  • continuously improving production methods and quality in order to remain competitive: three years ago, with the aid of a consultant, ACOME introduced a new industrial organization based on autonomous production cells, inspired by ‘best practices’ in the field;
  • encouraging internal mobility and promotion: the technicians working in Methods, Quality and Maintenance, who previously combined to form the Technical Department, have been redeployed to workshop level, a move which for some of them brought new operational responsibilities;

  • arranging for the engineers needed by the cooperative to be brought to Mortain, an area in which ACOME coordinated its efforts with the regional authorities;

  • creating the necessary training courses for local recruitment of tomorrow’s operatives, for example by developing a ‘vocational Baccalaureate’ in consultation with Education Nationale – all graduates of this training course have so far been hired by ACOME.

Strategic diversification, however, remains the central thrust of this policy. Hitherto, ACOME has experienced nothing but success in its successive diversifications, thus demonstrating that an ‘aggressive’ strategy in the interests of local employment can be pursued without assistance from the local authorities and within a rural area that has been little industrialized.

The latest investment, in the field of fibre optics, looked promising. In particular, it enabled ACOME, by hiring a hundred or so young and previously trained operatives, to reduce substantially the average age of its workforce, a significant proportion of whom will be retiring between now and the year 2012. As we know, this sector was hit by a catastrophic economic downturn, the major players experiencing financial problems that resulted in an abrupt freeze on investment. ACOME, too, felt the impact of this, the new factory operating at minimum levels at the time when we visited the site.

ACOME was seriously affected by this economic reversal – so violent that it resulted in large-scale redundancies and plant shutdowns by ACOME’s French competitors – and still was at the time of our study. To date, the company has been able to avoid any dismissals among its permanent workforce. On the other hand, and this indicates the ‘economic’ limitations of a strategy of social responsibility, ACOME has not renewed the hundred or so (10% of the total) limited-term contracts (LTCs) which it had concluded a year earlier. A study of the company’s social record shows that this has been an exceptional event, since its past practice was to take on LTC personnel almost automatically as part of its permanent staff. In the present crisis situation, the LTC staff therefore played their ‘traditional’ role as a shock absorber at ACOME, obviously to the detriment of those young people with previous training who had been recruited locally and were the children of existing personnel or young members of the local community.

The company’s management is certainly far from satisfied with the ‘solution’ adopted, a highly symbolic illustration not only of the changes that have taken place in the world of employment within one generation but also of the extent to which a medium-sized industrial enterprise is dependent on its largest customers. They hope that business activity will pick up again, making it possible to ‘recover’ as many of these young people as possible. They also talk about the inflexibility of the regulations and legislative framework which, in a situation like the present one, makes it impossible to find more socially satisfactory solutions in consultation with the central and local authorities. Legally, for example, it is impossible to arrange for the oldest employees to take early retirement (some of them having had difficulty finding places in the new ‘autonomous production cell’ organization adopted by ACOME), and to recruit young people who not only represent ACOME’s future but also come from a surrounding area in which the working population is undergoing a worrying decline.

B.2.3 Energetic staff information policy

There is no trade union presence at ACOME. This is a quite exceptional situation for a French industrial undertaking employing 1 000 people. The works council elections thus automatically involve two ballots, trade unions alone having the right to put forward candidates for the first ballot in France. Where the law makes union intervention obligatory, as was the case recently with negotiations on the application of the act on the 35-hour week, the ACOME employees have had to use the services of a representative to negotiate with their management.

The works council, as the main forum for discussions on the company’s economic policy, has not made use of external expert reports financed by the company, as it could legally do, because, according to its secretary, ‘that would mean paying twice over’. This situation seems, a priori, far removed from the objective of those who promote the idea of corporate social responsibility and argue in favour of strengthening the social dialogue.

What is interesting about the ACOME case is that it shows how a cooperative enterprise has created mechanisms enabling it to arrange very extensive consultation of its workforce, even in the absence of a union, and to involve its staff closely in the operations of the company. It is in any case difficult to distinguish, in this concern to provide information, between what is addressed to the ‘employees’ and what is addressed to the ‘shareholders’, since the two concepts are combined in the person of the sociétaire.48
Thus, the permanent staff information and consultation mechanism at ACOME, which is worthy of consideration as a voluntary practice going beyond what the law requires of the company, may thus be described as falling within the definition given in the Green Paper of corporate social responsibility, applied to the issues ‘internal’ to the undertaking:

  • In accordance with the legal status of a cooperative, the annual general meeting, attended by a very large majority of the coopérateurs, offers every member of staff the opportunity to express his views and, through his vote, to give his opinion of the way in which the undertaking is being run.

  • Information on the company’s economic situation is provided in real time and on a decentralized basis, down to the production cells. The information displayed in these cells is not concerned only, as it often is, with the results obtained locally in terms of production or quality or safety indicators. It clearly reflects the situation of the undertaking as a whole, and so enables the coopérateurs to receive direct information.
  • The staff representatives on the Works Council, and on the Health and Safety Committee as well, represent all the various operations that take place on the Mortain site, and care is taken to ensure that every production unit is represented, so that it is the people directly affected by a problem who express their views on it.

  • A staff delegates’ charter (staff delegates being the second representative level envisaged by the Code du Travail) formally sets out the rights and duties of those who hold this position.

  • An external audit takes place every three years within the framework of an existing legal procedure known as ‘cooperative auditing’ (the essential purpose of which is to identify and avert the financial risks confronting small cooperatives); its application at ACOME has been broadened to include approaches of the social audit type, providing a detailed analysis of the company’s social climate. The exceptional number of replies received to the questionnaire issued on the occasion of the last cooperative audit bears witness to the ACOME employees’ willingness to express their views and the attention that is paid to those views.

  • At the time of our study, a local management charter was in the process of being drawn up, designed to revitalize the internal debates which (as the audits demonstrated) were in danger of dying away or becoming a matter of routine. Thus, ACOME experiences every day the problems of making an undertaking work ‘differently’, new generations of coopérateurs (some of whom travel a long way to work at Mortain) always being liable to see the undertaking as an employer ‘like any other’ in that, having grown to a substantial size, they feel that it loses its capacity to organize a consistent ‘cooperative life’.

The inventive and well-meaning mechanism instituted at ACOME can nevertheless be questioned:

  • It may be wondered whether, in the absence of a trade union, the employees are not denying themselves the benefits of the experience, influential ideas and efficiency of an external actor, outside the fabric of interdependence between the roles of shareholders and employees and the affective relationships that have become established between long-standing colleagues. The point is that this external actor has the ability to distance itself from the internal problems facing the company, to clarify the terms of complex situations, where the interests of employees and shareholders are not necessarily identical, and also to represent the ‘external stakeholders’ – employees who are not part of the permanent workforce or, much more remote from the Mortain site, employees of ACOME’s foreign subsidiaries.

  • The local philosophy, clearly, is to have confidence in the executive teams. It is a striking tribute to their stability that the cooperative has had only five chairmen/managing directors in 70 years. The very good results achieved by ACOME during that period testify to the efficiency of these executive teams and, in some respects, justify the confidence shown in them. It may be wondered, though, whether that stability is not also the effect of a classical form of ‘political creation of dignitaries’, as happens in this rural region with local elected representatives. More generally, the opportunity for those with specific interests to offer real opposition to internal decisions, since those decisions are given legitimacy by the overriding interest of the ‘community of coopérateurs’, seems to be significantly less than industrial establishments of a similar size where the usual situation in France is that a reorganization as radical as that implemented by ACOME in 1998 cannot take place without giving rise to local conflicts. And so the question is whether we should praise the quality of the internal consultation procedure or question this ‘complacency’.

B.2.4 Discussion of the case

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