Social Dialogue in Social Firms
Social enterprises tend to favour a participatory management structure, that has until recently been overlooked by bodies which exist to adjudicate disputes between workers and their employees. Recently, the Re:Dialogues Project on industrial relations released their final publication: ‘Developing Social Dialogue Appropriate to the Needs of Social Firms: Recommendations for European Participants in Social Dialogue’. The project ran for a year, and received funding from the European Union to conduct research in seven European countries: Austria, Belgium, Spain, France, Italy, Romania and the UK.
In the context of the project, social dialogue refers to discussions, consultations, negotiations and joint actions involving organisations representing the two sides of industry (employers and workers). Social Firms is a term used to refer to social enterprises that are focused on the employment and/or employability of individuals facing severe disadvantage in the traditional labour market, and that adhere to the three pillars of enterprise, employment and empowerment. As they are also social enterprises in the sense of the EMES definition, they commonly exhibit a participatory dimension and feature a decision-making process which is not based on ownership of capital. They also tend to favour a participatory approach involving the various parties affected by the activity, e.g. paid workers, users, volunteers, local public authorities, etc.
This publication, then, focuses on the unique needs of social firms when conducting social dialogue. It notes that European social dialogue is built on the assumption that there is a divergence of interest between “bosses” and “workers”. There is, however, currently no provision for the specific approach adopted by social firms that follow other social enterprises in applying participatory management structures. The report makes observations and gives recommendations both at national level and at European level. Within the UK specifically, the project notes that the majority of trade unions are not aware of the Social Firm model, and that some which are aware of social enterprises in general see them as a threat. Re:Dialogues has therefore recommended:
- that the umbrella body Social Firms UK should take steps to raise awareness of and explain the Social Firm model to trade unions.
- that trade unions should become aware of the social firm model and consider how the goals of trade unions and social firms coincide.
At the organisation level, the project recommends:
- that sharing of good practice is facilitated and encouraged by a range of methods and channels.
- that social firms implement mechanisms such as buddy schemes and training in assertiveness for employees to assist staff in taking part in participatory management models.
Michelle Rigby, from Social Firms UK, commented that “work-integration social enterprises and trade unions should develop a strategic partnership to align their essential values, share skills and jointly pursue their common objectives”.
The project concludes that currently, social firms and social enterprises are struggling to find a place in the labyrinth of a legislative framework and social dialogue that is tailor-made for a conventional entrepreneurial model. At the European level, the Re:Dialogues project recommends that social firms should be systematically represented on formal consultation bodies as a key player alongside traditional participants, namely employers’ and employees’ representatives. They also favour an ongoing dialogue with workers’ rights organisations, based on respect for the purposes of social firms and the method of collective decision-making inherent in participatory management based on direct democracy. Findings are being submitted to the European Commission, the managers and members of European political and workers’ rights organisations, and to the members of the European Economic and Social Committee, in the hope of effecting change.
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