Solvay Global Forum Worker Representatives Ensure that Company Upholds Its Social Responsibility Commitments

Communication flows from the shop floor to the executive suite and vice versa at Solvay, an advanced materials and specialty chemicals multinational company based in Brussels, Belgium.

Ensuring this communication flows continuously is the Solvay Global Forum. Eight union representatives from around the world and three management representatives comprise the forum. Jeff Hill, a longtime leader and member of USW Local 14200 in Marietta, Ohio, represents the U.S.

This group evaluates sites in a different country each year to ensure the multi-national’s Global Forum Agreement (GFA) is followed and communicated to all employees.

The GFA commits Solvay to adhere to global labor standards and workers’ right to organize without company interference. By signing the GFA, the company affirms it will engage in socially-responsible business practices. This means having a safe and healthy workplace, protecting against discrimination, eliminating workplace bullying, and committing to diversity and environmental protection.

Last year, the forum evaluated two U.S. Solvay facilities in Anaheim and Orange, Calif., and two Solvay plants in Pasadena and Deer Park, Texas. Last summer, the group evaluated three German plants—Bad Wimpfen, Bad Honningen and Rhienburg—over a three-day period.

“We saw a different site each day,” Hill said. “The German visit was very different from the evaluation we did in the U.S.

“In the U.S., the global forum questioned employees. In Germany, Solvay works with its unions in a structured manner.

“We met with German union officials, listened to their opinions of the social dialogue process, heard how things were going with their site manager, and asked if they were resolving issues and if they were satisfied with the resolutions,” Hill said. “We also discussed their safety issues, and asked if they had issues the global forum could help them with and discuss with their plant manager.”

Another objective of the global forum’s visits is to ask if the sites are familiar with the Solvay Cares program, company bonus system, GFA and IndustriALL Global Union.

“Compared to the U.S., the average German worker knows Solvay signed the GFA with IndustriALL and who IndustriALL is,” Hill said.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Union and management representatives on the Solvay Global Forum negotiated the Solvay Cares program, and it is now part of the GFA signed by the company chief executive officer and the Global Forum.

Solvay Cares sets minimum social standards worldwide for Solvay sites, even if the country where the site is located does not offer these benefits.

The program includes items like:

  • Full-income protection during parental leave, with 14 weeks for the mother and one week for the co-parent. There is full-income protection of one week during adoption. (This is a major improvement over the U.S. unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act.)
  • A minimum coverage of 75 percent of medical fees in case of hospitalization or severe illness.
  • Disability insurance in case of lasting incapacity.
  • Life insurance, with coverage for the family or partner.

Solvay’s tradition has been to provide its employees with more than just a job, according to the company’s website. Decades before the advent of the social welfare state in Europe, the Belgium company ran its own social security program in the 1880s.

Solvay Cares began in 2017 as a minimum benefit package for the company’s 30,000 employees around the world.

The company’s CEO, Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, described the idea behind this initiative: “As a global corporate citizen, Solvay is going beyond local market standards and ensuring the well-being of colleagues no matter where they are located.”

Constructive Criticism

Hill said the forum met with each site’s top plant management, union chair and vice chair for dinner the night before each visit. The next day, the forum met with six to eight people, listened to a company presentation, toured the site and ate lunch with union leaders and management. After lunch, the forum met with union leaders only.  Then, the group took the union’s concerns to management and offered feedback and suggestions.

“We criticize management in a productive way to find issues management and the workers struggle over and to offer suggestions to remedy the situations,” Hill said.

“Overall, we were pleased with what we saw. The plants were clean and had good safety records. Nothing jumped out as a big problem, but the global forum said the sites could communicate more with each other.

“Each plant had lots of safety signs around describing use of proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in different areas where it is required, and some were 6-feet tall. I shared this with management at my Marietta, Ohio, plant,” he added.

After each country visit, Kemal Özkan, assistant general secretary of IndustriALL, files a report on the global forum’s site evaluations, and Solvay responds with feedback on the global forum’s recommendations.

Worker Training

In Germany, a person who wants to be a chemical operator or instrument or electrical worker must undergo a three-and-a-half year apprenticeship program, Hill said. 

One-third of the time the worker is in school and two-thirds of his or her time is spent in on-the-job training. Once the worker passes the program, he or she is considered qualified to work at any chemical plant in Germany.

Hill said that at one site, 200 of the 400 workers were contractors. He said that in Germany the contractors are considered specialists who are not involved in production.

Contractors have specialized training in areas like high pressure water blasting and insulation work, Hill said. They insulate process lines, do scaffolding, handle line breaking, cleaning and hazardous work, for example.

“The plants were really clean,” Hill said. “I was told that was the German culture. One plant was 201 years old, and the fire brigade for the site services the surrounding village.”


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