The international standards body, ISO, has produced a flurry of draft social, ethical and environmental standards of late. Italian trade unionist Ornella Cilona reflects on her participation in the work culminating in the adoption of a standard on the “social responsibility of organizations”. 

Trade union involvement in non-technical standardization can be an effective bulwark for workers’ rights if national standards bodies take trade union and other stakeholders’ contributions fully on board. This is the main lesson I have learned in my five years chairing the Technical Committee on Social Responsibility of Organizations in the Italian standards body UNI. In 2003, UNI decided to set up a new Technical Committee on Social Responsibility in which the social partners and NGOs would work together on improving knowledge and awareness of sustainable development in Italy.

This Technical Committee took a lead on the ISO’s 2004 decision to set up a Working Group (WG) on Social Responsibility to draft a global standard on the matter. The big innovation in this new group compared to other ISO working groups, was the input of stakeholders like government, trade unions, employers’ associations and NGOs in drafting the standard from the off.

I was on the UNI delegation at the first meeting of the ISO WG on Social Responsibility in Brazil in February 2005 at which drafting of the standard, now known as ISO 26000, got under way. Seven plenary meetings of the Group were held between 2005 and 2010 at which discussions on procedures occasionally became heated.

The WG agreed the crucial principle that every part of ISO 26000 should be written by consensus – i.e., without sustained opposition – of all six categories of stakeholder: government; trade unions; employers’ associations; NGOs; consumer associations; service, support, research and others. Consensus, stakeholder identification and involvement, and a focus on the needs and demands of emerging economies are key to understanding the huge importance of ISO 26000 to the standardization process in its fullest meaning.

ISO 26000 was launched in late 2010. The main aims of these guidelines are: to provide practical guidance on social responsibility, identifying and engaging with stakeholders; to promote common terminology on social responsibility consistent with existing documents, international treaties and conventions; and to broaden awareness of the matter. The standard applies to all organizations, not just companies, and is neither intended nor appropriate for certification purposes.

ISO 26000 lays down seven principles of SR: Accountability; Transparency; Ethical behaviour; Respect for stakeholder interests; Respect for the rule of law; Respect for international norms of behaviour; Respect for human rights. Social responsibility is defined as "responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, through transparent and ethical behaviour that:

  • contributes to sustainable development, including health and the welfare of society;
  • takes into account the expectations of stakeholders;
  • is in compliance with applicable law and consistent with international norms of behaviour;
  • is integrated throughout the organization and practiced in its relationships".

Most EU Member States have adopted ISO 26000 as a national standard. Only Greece, Latvia, Luxembourg and Slovenia have not done so.

Trade unions were the least well-represented stakeholders in the ISO Social Responsibility WG for two reasons. First, shortage of funding prevented many trade unionists from attending the eight plenary meetings: the ISO could only fund attendance for a few from emerging economies. Second, many national standards bodies did not ask the unions to serve on the Mirror Committees that were to track preparation of the standard. Even so, trade unions did manage to get a comprehensive distillation of responsible labour practices consistent with ILO international labour standards written into ISO 26000.

"We support the emphasis given to authoritative international instruments in ISO 26000 as well as the recognition that it is not for individual organisations to unilaterally define the interests of society", said ITUC General Secretary Sharon Burrow in September 2010.

ISO and social standards: what is the union role?

A Post Publication Organization (PPO) was set up in 2010, principally to advise the ISO on interpretation of the standard and proposals for revising it. PPO members also gather information on good and bad practices in using ISO 26000. In late 2013, the ISO will ask its members whether they wish to keep the standard as is, change or withdraw it. This is a systematic review the ISO does for standards three or five years after publication.

As I mentioned above, ISO 26000 is not a management system standard and is not intended for certification purposes. And while consultants very much favour having a new certifiable ISO standard on social responsibility based on the contents of ISO 26000, unions are opposed to the idea because it betrays the most innovative aspect of the standard, which calls for labour organizations along with other stakeholders to oversee the implementation of socially responsible initiatives by companies.

With ISO 26000 published, the ISO started work on new social standards that may affect trade union activities in a big way. The most important one currently being drafted is on human resource management (ISO Technical Committee (TC) 260, set up in 2011). This new standard would aim to offer "broad, coordinating guidance to human resources practitioners" and to harmonize "disparate practices for the benefit of organizations and their employees". ISO TC 260 "would be responsible to develop management system standards in the field of human resources management, the effect of which would be to promote reliable and transferable approaches to workforce management in developed and emerging economies".

The proposed new ISO standard on human resource management is opposed by the ILO as treading on its toes, and by some national standards bodies, such as Germany and Japan. Some months ago the International Organization of Employers (IOE) decided to join ISO TC 260, while trade unions are deeply concerned that a standard on human management might undermine labour rights and collective bargaining. Another important ISO social standard in the works is on learning services for non formal education and training.

The ISO’s growing focus on social issues arguably makes it important for trade unions to be more involved in its activities. It is crucial for unions to oppose them if they undermine the ILO and international and national trade unions’ key role in defending labour rights and strengthening collective bargaining. It is also crucial that national standards bodies, as ISO members, identify and involve unions in their work. Training activities and resourcing for union committee representatives are needed to ensure full and effective participation by trade unions in the technical committees. The ISO should do more on this, drawing on the experience of ISO 26000•.

Special report - Standardization: what roles for the unions?

Table of contents

Trade union involvement in non-technical standardization