France’s unions are busy strengthening their grip on the country’s employers through what some might consider an unlikely channel.
The new pensions law allows for a new long-term form of employee savings plan, plan d’épargne retraite collectif (Perco), a DC system funded by corporates and available to all employees which can be taken as a supplement to retirement provision if the employee so wishes.
This has provided a stimulus to socially responsible investing in France, a welcome boost given that with e5bn invested in SRI it lags behind a number of its neighbours in Europe.
The stimulus has come from the trade unions. “We believe that in order to have a better return and guarantee on the employee savings scheme it would be better to invest in SRI funds or dedicated SRI funds monitored by the unions,” says Jean-Pierre Poulet, assistant to Gaby Bonnand, national secretary of the CFDT, one of France’s main trade unions.
He adds: “Furthermore, during periods of crisis and falls in the stock market we say to the management that the SRI funds are less sensitive to the ups and downs and therefore offer real security for the workers.”
An unlikely source of interest in SRI? “At the beginning, the banks were astonished that the unions were interested in this subject,” notes Poulet.
If anything it was a wake-up call for the banks. “They were very reticent,” says Poulet. “They didn’t think it was possible to intervene in companies’ financial management. But today they are convinced of the relevance of this matter and the level of interest in it. They also realise the importance of managing these dedicated funds because it is a way of getting closer to the market.”
So with this in mind the CFDT spearheaded the formation in 2002 of the Comité Intersyndicale de l’Epargne Salariale (CIES) – a trade union committee on employee savings. It consists of four of France’s major trade unions – the CGC, for professional managerial staff, the Christian-oriented CFTC, the CGT and the CFDT.
The CIES issued Requests For Proposals (RFPs) to a number of banks to set up dedicated SRI funds in the name of the CIES to provide a savings vehicle available to all employees of all companies.
The unions ensure that the funds respect a code of conduct established by the CIES and which confers to the fund the “labelisation” – the fact that they recognise the fund as SRI as described by the CIES. “We hold regular meetings with the asset managers so see that they are managing in accordance with the strategy that we have set out,”
There is also a follow-up commission, consisting of representatives from the individual unions, which visits each bank with a dedicated SRI fund. Poulet: “We audit the accounts and check that the companies which they are investing in are socially responsible. We also ask what choices the asset manager made at the shareholders meetings, whether it votes in a manner that conforms with socially responsible investing. In this way we can ensure that they are doing what we want.”
The ultimate aim is to gain more influence among employers. “We want employees to invest in our dedicated SRI funds so that the money paid by into employees savings plans will influence the corporate management,” says Poulet. “In this way we can transform the strategic choices of a company.”
The philosophy of the unions regarding SRI reflects the French approach generally. “We do not necessarily exclude companies because of their business activity, be it armaments or nuclear energy,” says Poulet. “There are other criteria such as the management practices of the company: does it keep within norms of pollution, for example. There are companies with business activities that one would consider socially responsible but which have terrible management that does not keep within social and environmental norms.”
The CIES aims to build momentum at the coal face. “We are encouraging our company representatives to negotiate with their employers to persuade them to invest the amounts intended for employee savings schemes in dedicated SRI funds,” says Poulet. “We focus on large companies where there are many employee savings funds that are invested in funds that are not SRI.”
There are now dedicated funds with 12 banks. There is a total of e60m invested in SRI retail funds; but only e5m of this is wage savings. Poulet: “We believe that if the whole amount were to be invested in SRI funds or special dedicated SRI funds this will influence companies in the long term to behave in a manner that is socially responsible. Of course this will take time. There is still much work to be done to develop SRI in France.”
Looking forward the main challenge facing the CIES is to convince the Caisses de Retraites to invest massively in SRI and dedicated funds. “These are significant funds and if we manage to convince some of these to invest in SRI there will be huge volumes very quickly,” says Poulet.