Corporate social responsibility

Was anyone surprised by the recent news stories about the elaborate scheme Tesco set up to avoid paying tax? It’s hardly an uncommon practice – News International famously pay almost no tax in the UK, despite the alleged patriotism of The Sun. What bothered me about the story though was that it shows how hollow claims of corporate social responsibility are.

Tesco have been muscling in on volunteering recently, with the Tesco Young Volunteers scheme. £500,000 is a lot of money, but set that against a possible £1 billion sneaked out of the reach of the taxman and it looks rather less generous. What could that have done for public services? An estimated £12bn in tax is avoided by UK companies each year. Perhaps it’s time to give our ‘corporate citizens’ some ASBOs.

I’m not singling out Tesco here. They’ve become a favourite target recently, but they’re not evil – they’re simply following market logic. If Tesco didn’t exist it would be another supermarket in their dominant position.

What concerns me is the generalised use of CSR as a figleaf.

Recently a high profile Employer Supported Volunteering event invited a speaker from BAE Systems. BAE, if you weren’t aware, are one of the largest arms manufacturers in the world. You can argue about the morality of that I guess, but it’s harder to argue against the morality of supplying Hawk jets to the Indonesian government under Suharto in the 1990s (a regime that had killed half a million of its own people on taking power, and killed a third of the population of East Timor (200,000 people) since its invasion in the mid 1970s).

The company is under strong suspicion of massive corruption – a million pounds to General Pinochet (small fry, his death toll was only in the thousands, but there was a nice side line in torture), and hundreds of millions of pounds to the Saudi goverment. You can see why they might like some positive press.

But there’s more. BAE also spied on the Campaign Against Arms Trade. As someone who was in the circles of their activist volunteers at the time I am taking this slightly personally, but the irony of a group who spied on volunteers discovering a love of volunteering is pretty sweet.

Not as ironic as Shell or Coca Cola getting involved in volunteering when both are linked to the murder of volunteers (Ogoni activists in Nigeria and union members in Columbia), but close enough.

I realise that many people will accuse me of being political and not facing up to the practicalities of the real world. However not taking a position on such issues is political in itself, and amounts to complicity with attempts at cheap PR. Too many sector bosses seem to get seduced by the lure of some sharp suits and swish offices. It’s this kind of ‘realism’ that is crushing the sector between the Scylla and Charybdis of market forces and state control.

I’m not criticising organisations who, say, accept ESV volunteers. However, it should be on our terms. We shouldn’t be seen as a cut price alternative to paintballing or other team building days out. The sector needs ongoing volunteering, not just one off days. We don’t all have walls to paint. Companies serious about ESV should allow regular time off for staff.

And if corporations really want to be socially responsible, they could start by paying more tax. Better still, let them join the ‘Third Sector’ and become co-ops.

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