‘Corporate social responsibility’ will not ensure dignified employment for people with disabilities—but raised awareness in a social economy can.
In debates about addressing the place of persons with disabilities in society, the notion of inclusion has come to the fore. An ‘inclusive’ society adapts to the specifics of the individual, going beyond her needs to give her all the possibilities of success in life. Inclusion thus depends, for its full realisation, on a collective mobilisation as well as the willpower of social, political and economic organisations to achieve the integration of the most vulnerable.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, many companies have manifested a social contribution—not only by donating medical equipment and helping the most disadvantaged, but also by investing large amounts of money in preserving employment and in manufacturing masks, respirators, gels and other indispensable health products. Beyond that, though, questions have increasingly been asked about the world after the crisis. Will everything return to normal? Was that normality really ‘normal’? Could a new world emerge, driven by a desire for solidarity—a new society, marked by more mutual aid and tolerance, with a new economic model?
Many years have passed since the words ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) were first uttered and the (then) United Nations Commission on Human Rights requested the appointment of a special representative in this arena. It was essential at that time to open up, at European level too, explicit reflection and action on human rights in the business world. The echoes still resonated from the gas leak from Union Carbide in Bhopal in India in 1984, the conflict between indigenous Mapuche in Chile and the privatised Endesa company around the turn of the millennium over its construction of a hydroelectric dam and the protracted environmental disaster in the Niger Delta arising from oil discharges from pipelines belonging to the Dutch company Shell.
Large companies, especially multinationals, wanted to show how responsible they felt, beyond the traditional company-product-client relationship. But the conduct of the big corporations in the distribution of profits—their responsibility to pay tax—was deficient and continues to be so. Their good deeds, often deemed cosmetic, were subject to all kinds of criticism.
Between the private companies, with their CSR standards, and the public sector, Joseph Stiglitz has proposed a third pillar, which in addition represents an alternative to the current economic model. For him, the social economy represents ‘the business model of the future’. It comprises co-operatives and other entities not of lucrative intent, whose principal virtue is combining business efficiency with equity in the distribution of profits.
Democratic ownership of co-operatives means that the allocation of surpluses is to each partner equally, in contrast to public limited companies and other forms of capitalist enterprise in which the distribution is proportionate to capital contribution. In addition, the social economy is a source of innovation from which the rest of the economy benefits—as with its capacity to include the most vulnerable sections of the population.
The disability strategy adopted by the European Commission in early March sets out a series of binding objectives and legislation to be realised by 2030, including inter alia an action plan on the social economy to improve the enabling environment for social enterprises. It is important to take advantage of the impetus of this strategy to strengthen the relationship between the social economy and the inclusive enterprise—hitherto far from a reality.
Inclusive enterprises can be as much social as commercial. And in Spain, for example, within companies and entities of the social economy 6.2 per cent of workers have a recognised disability—a much higher proportion than that observed in commercial enterprises (1.7 per cent). Yet, despite the proximity in values and positioning between the inclusive enterprise and the social economy, lack of awareness of disability, in general, continues to be a barrier to hiring from, and incorporation of, this diverse group in companies with social objectives.
An economy where private interest prevails over the public hinders innovation and efficiency while maximising the benefits of the few. Augmentation of internal democracy in companies can ensure not only a more pleasant but also more innovative work environment and, with that, a more innovative society as a whole.
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It is the entities with a socially responsible culture which tend to translate this into a greater representation of the groups that experience greater burdens of discrimination. It is therefore important to rethink CSR, so that it leaves a real place to the social and inclusive economy in our society, accelerating the transformation from a focus on profitability to sustainability and social wellbeing.
The European Social Summit this week in Porto is a great opportunity to realise principle 17 of the European Pillar of Social Rights, dedicated to the inclusion of persons with disabilities. It’s an opportunity too to advance the social economy and to set concrete objectives and indicators—such as the Inclusive Development Index, which can replace the obsolete gross domestic product, and investment in public social-welfare systems.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Spanish in El Diario
Estrella Durá Ferrandis is a member of the European Parliament from the Spanish Socialist delegation and of the Committee of Employment and Social Affairs. Cristina Helena Lago is a parliamentary assistant to the delegation and the committee.