Belgium: unions questioning the added value of CSR
Lack of trust is most probably what would best characterize the perception of corporate social responsibility (CSR) by trade unions in Belgium. The unions recognize the importance and relevance of CSR as a concept, but regret the way it is being used or misused by many companies, often as a marketing tool more than anything else. Moreover, they feel that there is a gap between the way unions deﬁne CSR and the way it is being deﬁned by companies. Trade unions want concrete actions and clear results. Unfortunately they feel that CSR often remains at the level of rhetoric. Another element leading to mistrust is the feeling of substitution: CSR might provide a legitimate bypass to avoid dialogue with trade unions, rather than reinforce it. This scepticism has emerged progressively over the last few years. Although the unions have never been highly engaged in the CSR community and initiatives in Belgium, in the early 2000s they were generally more positive and hopeful with regard to CSR. However, the attitude of trade unions towards CSR is not homogenous. As we see below, there is one noticeable exception – the Christian union branch in Leuven – that views CSR as a way to rethink the role and relationship of trade unions with businesses. Belgium has a strong trade union tradition and a high level of employee unionization, certainly one of the highest in Europe. The unions are known for their capacity for negotiation, which takes place at three levels: the company, the business sector and, at the highest level, the negotiation of intersectoral agreements. Although trade unions may have lost some of
their political power, they still play a critical role in Belgian industrial relations. However, their mobilizing force may be weakened by the numerous divisions that characterize Belgium in terms of languages, communities and regions, which are sources of internal tension but have also helped to develop a culture of negotiation and compromise. Within this context, CSR has become more of a dividing than a unifying force within trade unions, which have remained absent from debates at government, company or multi-stakeholder levels. Although they do not reject the concept, they prefer to remain at a certain distance.