An interview with Bernd Osterloh,
Chairman of the General and Group Works Council

The Volkswagen Works Council fosters, even initiates, its own corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. Why is that? Isn’t CSR usually a management function?

Osterloh: Social responsibility isn’t something you can leave to others. We believe that everyone has a responsibility to get involved. And you can’t just talk the talk – you have to walk the walk. Sixteen years ago, for example, the Group Works Council launched the “One hour for the future” campaign. We partner with the children’s and adolescents’ charity “terre des hommes” to help street children worldwide. Over the years, we have sponsored more than 130 projects in six countries. And since 2010 we’ve also had a special project called “A chance to play”. At the two FIFA World Cup tournaments in South Africa and Brazil, we made sure that more than 100,000 socially disadvantaged children could participate in games, sports and educational activities. But we are also aware that child poverty is an issue right on our own doorstep. To address this problem, we launched the “Starthilfe” (Getting Started) initiative. It sponsors projects targeting nutrition, education, physical fitness and social development in nursery and elementary schools.

The “Volkswagen Belegschaftsstiftung” (Volkswagen Employees’ Foundation) provides a special example of how employees live out their commitment to social responsibility. Are there projects here that are especially close to your heart?

Osterloh: The Volkswagen Employees’ Foundation was established in 2011. The foundation has taken up the work of our former children’s relief projects. The focus has always been on socially disadvantaged children and young people in the Volkswagen Group’s locations around the globe. We are aiming to give them the chance to shape a successful future for themselves. You can well imagine that every single one of these projects is important to me, because every project has a worthy goal. One hundred apprenticeships in Portugal, establishing a vocational training center in India, vocational training projects in Brazil and Argentina, aid for recent graduates in Italy – the list goes on and on. Each project is a priority; each project is close to my heart.

Why does the Works Council consider sustainability and social responsibility so important for a global corporation like Volkswagen? Do you think the Company is already doing enough to reach its ambitious objective of being the most sustainable company in the industry?

Osterloh: It is important to fight poverty, protect nature and promote the arts. These are obligations to our society that no one, including companies, can ignore. Volkswagen internalized these priorities years ago and can justly be called a pioneer in many areas. But my honest answer to your question is that when it comes to sustainability, you can never do enough – and I am certain that our management understands this as well.

It is important to fight poverty, protect nature and promote the arts.

Employee co-determination plays an important role in the Volkswagen Group. The Group Works Council is pursuing the goal of establishing employee representation bodies at its locations outside Germany as well. What benefits can be gained by this approach? Where do things currently stand?

Osterloh: Strong employee co-determination is one of the reasons that Volkswagen is such a successful company today. Today nobody disputes this fact. We have a model of co-determination that works very well in Germany, and what we are trying to do is identify the elements that can be applied in our locations elsewhere. Be it in India, Brazil or Portugal – the local background conditions are very different, and of course we have to take them into account. In any case, our top priority remains representing the interests of our colleagues vis-à-vis management. To accomplish this, we need well-defined structures and binding rules – which of course can be different depending on the situation. The most important thing is making certain that the employees’ wishes and needs don’t disappear from the radar. Volkswagen understands this, which is why our Company is working to become the best employer. And I consider this a very worthwhile goal.

Strong employee co-determination is one of the reasons that Volkswagen is such a successful company today.

The automobile industry is going through a sea change. Digitization won’t just leave its mark on the cars of the future, but on the world of work as well. What are the biggest challenges facing the Volkswagen Group? What can the employees expect to happen?

Osterloh: Digitization is hardly a new phenomenon. And this is not the first major change that the automotive world has experienced. Whenever there is change, there are both opportunities and risks. Of course digitization means that workflows and processes will change. As the Works Council, it is our job to shape these changes to the advantage of the workforce. It’s not about stopping progress or acting as a roadblock. It’s about leveraging the full potential of digitization. For example, digitization goes hand in hand with questions of ergonomics and autonomy. The way we work tomorrow has to be better than today. If we succeed in making it so, then we will have accomplished something worthwhile.

The way we work tomorrow has to be better than today.

With the aim of meeting new challenges, the Volkswagen Group has committed itself to a strict efficiency program. Do you believe this endangers the corporate objectives of job security and social responsibility?

Osterloh: No, what makes you think that? The efficiency program will have precisely the opposite effect. It will safeguard long-term employment. Our Chairman of the Board of Management, Professor Dr. Martin Winterkorn, hasn’t simply prescribed a program of cost cutting. We’re aiming to make processes throughout the Company more efficient, which also means more cost-effective.
The employees have understood this from the outset, which is why they have set a good example. We presented Dr. Winterkorn with a folder containing more than 500 specific proposals which come directly from the workforce. And more proposals are still coming in. After all, our colleagues are the ones who know best where Volkswagen has unexploited reserves and opportunities waiting to be leveraged. In fact, I can think of some managers who I wish were tackling the efficiency program with the same energy that we are. We’re talking about a responsibility that must be shouldered – responsibility for cost-effectiveness and job security within the Volkswagen Group.

We’re talking about a responsibility that must be shouldered.