When SPD chairman Franz Müntefering made his notorious remark comparing foreign investors to a swarm of locusts, he touched off an avalanche of discussion about socially responsible corporations.
"Abolish capitalism" reads this protestor's T-shirt
At a symposium this week in Berlin, there was consensus among politicians, union representatives and industry leaders that capitalism comes with responsibilities. But what that means exactly in terms of corporate responsibility toward society was less clear.
The president of the German Industry Association (BDI), Jürgen Thumann, repeatedly reminded the politicians present that corporations should not be made the scapegoats for a disappointing economic situation as Germany switches into election campaign mode. Instead of going with the flow, Thumann recommended that politicians work on creating a climate of trust around business and investing.
"In the long-term, corporations can only serve their communities if they are successful," Thumann said. "Business success creates and secures jobs, which is a large part of their responsibility. It's the best service to a community."
A demonstrator wears an "I'm a Deutsche Bank victim" during a protest against the bank's downsizing decision.
It's also the duty of all corporations only to get rid of jobs in an extreme emergency, said Thumann, adding that it's up to company leaders to look for alternatives to job cuts to secure their competitive advantage. In the same way, said union leaders, companies that are successful are obliged to reward their workforce.
"When companies make profits -- and we have never been against profit-making -- it's our opinion that the workers who helped to create this success should also share in it," said Jürgen Peters, the head of the metal workers' union, IG Metall.
Speaking up for the EU
But further social responsibility in geographical terms has been demanded by the EU's commissioner for enterprise and industry, Günter Verheugen. German companies need to involve themselves more in Europe and do what they can to combat negative images of the EU, Verheugen said.
"Socially responsible enterprise in Germany means making sure in your own ranks, that no one achieves competitive advantage by bringing in illegal or borderline legal cheap labor from other parts of the world only to be exploited here," Verheugen said as part of his appeal to industry leaders.
Enterprise in the European Union has to be about more than just profit maximization and getting a better position on the global market, Verheugen said, adding that a strong economy is one of the fundamental ingredients of the European concept of communal living.