Law proposed to benefit employees of multinationals

Big business calls it the beginning of the end. Labor unions label it indispensable. And bureaucrats at European Community headquarters here say it is driving them mad.

At issue is a proposed law that would force multinational corporations operating in the EC to consult their employees and disclose information on their financial circumstances and ''all procedures and plans'' liable to have a ''substantial effect'' on employee interests.

''I have been lobbied more on this issue than on any other in my portfolio during my term of office,'' says Ivor Richard, EC Commissioner for Social Affairs, who has been responsible for the proposal. ''The carpet to my door has been worn thin by the shoes of the spokesmen of the multinationals.''

With carpet-wearing utmost in their minds, senior executives and lobbyists from the largest American multinational corporations have been arriving in Brussels by the planeload since October 1980, when the commission first took up the legislation.

Their main concern has been that the proposal, if approved, would oblige them to make public certain confidential information about their operations that could be used against them by their competitors and may delay many actions. They also worry that if employees were given access to corporate investment plans, labor unions may be able to block factory closures and layoffs.

Unionists in Western Europe cry ''nonsense,'' pointing to the success of recent Dutch and West German ''co-determination'' legislation that placed employee representatives on corporate boards. Those laws, according to the unionists, have actually improved labor-management relations in those countries and led to less social unrest.

''Far from revolutionary,'' George Debrunne, the president of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), said earlier this week, ''It should be the inalienable right of the work force to be informed and consulted.''

The ETUC represents millions of workers in the 10-nation European Community.

''Despite all the noise and clamor,'' Richard argues, ''I still believe that the proposal is a modest one.''

The proposal, he says, only aims to give workers ''the right to information'' on company policy likely to affect workers' livelihood or well-being.

''That seems to me a quite admirable objective,'' Richard says. ''No one would deny that workers have at least the right to be informed about matters which are often literally a matter of economic life or death to them.''

EC officials say that the drama could be played out over the next few months, when Commissioner Richard undertakes a hectic round of talks with the trade unions and US and European multinational corporations.

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