Granting social dialogue its key role in corporate success
When Solvay signs an agreement to guarantee its employees’ social rights worldwide, it isn’t about putting on a friendly corporate face. Rather, it’s additional proof of the Group’s ongoing commitment to openness and transparency when it comes to social dialogue, a key element in Solvay’s transformation journey.
“Social dialogue is an opportunity, not a risk.” This quote from Solvay CEO Jean-Pierre Clamadieu pretty much sums things up when it comes to the company’s way of apprehending dialogue with its workforce. “It’s a political stance,says Jean-Christophe Sciberras, Solvay’s head of industrial relations. We have a positive vision: social dialogue helps us improve as a company. It’s therefore no surprise we are pioneers in this field.”
A true commitment
Solvay has a decade-long history with IndustriALL, the global union for the chemical, extractive and manufacturing industries. “From the beginning, our respective organizations have treated this relationship with the upmost respect,explains Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL’s Assistant General Secretary. Both have gone through mergers since our first joint commitment, and all involved should be commended for maintaining and building on that positive history.”
In February 2017, Solvay took that collaboration one step further by renewing its Global Framework Agreement (GFA) with IndustriALL, reinforcing its commitment to provide the same basic labor and social rights to all its employees worldwide. This places Solvay in a rather small club of 120 companies having signed this type of agreement – and only two others in the chemical sector. “The agreement went beyond ILO (International Labor Organization) recommendations to also include a commitment to the OECD’s guidelines for multinational enterprises,details Kemal Özkan. Furthermore, Solvay expects its suppliers and subcontractors to apply these same principles. Other projects were also added, such as the protection of mental safety at work and actions to reinforce commitments to health and safety at work as well as anti-discrimination, diversity and environmental protection.”
Venturing into the field
What makes Solvay’s commitment stand out is the fact that the agreement also includes field audits during which representatives from IndustriALL, Solvay management and employees visit facilities together. “We conduct these audits every year in a different country,explains Albert Kruft, coordinator of the Global Forum, Solvay’s body for employee representation. We check whether the agreement is really implemented: do people know they have a right to join a union, are ILO and OECD recommendations truly followed, etc.”The idea of these visits is to enable social dialogue at field level, detect potential problems and encourage employees to speak up if they need to. “IndustriALL verifies that social and union dialogue at Solvay is open and free, says Jean-Christophe Sciberras. Problemswe ignored completely might spring up during visits, and sometimes they highlight an issue where people locally don’t see a problem but which goes against our values. This process also enables us to solve conflicts in a pacific way and anticipate problems.”
After China and India, the latest such visit was conducted in Korea in November 2016 – for 2017, USA has been chosen (IndustriALL and Solvay management jointly select which countries to visit). “The atmosphere was very cooperative and constructive,recalls In-Sang Lee, Country HR manager for Solvay Korea. The idea wasn’t to express criticism but to monitor the correct application of the IndustriALL agreement and make recommendations that could lead to a win-win relationship.”When everyone feels free to express potential problems, the impact on the company as a whole can only be beneficial. “We cannot prevent conflicts from happening, but we can have a process through which we can dialogue to solve them,agrees Valter Sanchez, IndustriALL’s General Secretary, creating a situation where the company is successful and employees can benefit by improving their work conditions.”
Solvay understands that replacing top-down directives with genuine transparency on the job floor leads to happier employees, and that can only help the company flourish. But this realization implies accepting to be challenged: by employees and unions, but also by a larger external entity such as IndustriALL. “Our social relations policy is simple: we need to be able to discuss with independent unions to build a constructive challenging model”, says Jean-Christophe Sciberras. “We have robust discussions,confirms Kemal Özkan, and through our challenging, Solvay knows that they are held up to the highest scrutiny.”
An internal body for dialogue
Internally, this willingness to be challenged and to structure bottom-up dialogue led to the creation of Solvay’s Global Forum in 2015 - on an experimental basis at first, and now with a formal agreement, signed in June 2017. With its 8 members originating from all regions where the company is present (Europe, Asia, North & South America), its role is to serve as a channel of expression for employees, in addition to their local unions, and to let management know what really goes on in the field. “Other companies that have framework agreements don’t have a panel to control whether they actually work or not,explains Albert Kruft. The executive committee expects us to challenge them about what people are thinking about Solvay policies.”
Similarly to what happens within a family, being able to freely discuss issues changes everything. For a large corporation, the results are tangible in many ways, from the general atmosphere among the workforce to improved productivity, as well as maintaining a positive image, both internally and externally. But that all takes work. “Ensuring the overall implementation of commitments to labor rights in every plant, every installation of a global company the size of Solvay is not easy, points out Kemal Özkan. It’s an ongoing job that needs full commitment from all parties involved.”
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