In its forty years of existence, SOMO has carried out extensive critical and participative research on multinationals, made possible by its many employees, volunteers and partner organisations. Thanks to the involvement and dedication of these people, SOMO has developed the knowledge and expertise to be able to make a significant and substantial contribution to the goals everyone aspired to: more sustainable and increasingly fair global economic developments and a counterweight to the multinationals who let capital gains dominate over social and ecological interests. A retrospective featuring all of these impassioned people would be a source of many interesting stories. We met with three former SOMO employees, Dick de Graaf, Sjef Stoop and Paul Elshof, to talk about SOMO highlights.

In the early 1970s, a large number of Dutch people declared solidarity with the reform politics of Chilean president Allende, aimed at the democratisation of the Chilean economy, amongst other things. It soon became clear however that (North American) multinationals in Chile were manipulating the movement. Even before the violent coup against Allende in 1973, several Dutch solidarity organisations, including the X-Y Beweging and Sjaloom, had decided to join forces to create research centre SOMO (Stichting voor Onderzoek naar Multinational Ondernemingen – Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations).

Criticising multinationals

SOMO grew from a one-man team in 1973 to a team of 33 researchers and supporting staff today. ‘SOMO put ‘criticising multinationals’ on the map and kept it there all these years’, says Dick de Graaf (1973-1975), the very first SOMO researcher and chair of the board for years now. ‘When we began we focused mainly on knowledge sharing, as there were very few people who even understood the way multinationals operated, the role these enterprises played and the extent of their influence. At SOMO we gave many lectures to present the information in a way that was easy to understand and to offer other organisations tools for exerting influence on multinationals and for waging campaigns.’

SOMO the pioneer

For a long time, the media had paid little to no attention to multinationals, unless it was to put them on a pedestal. ‘Fifteen years ago, the media barely ever wrote anything critical about the way these corporations operate,’ says Sjef Stoop, SOMO researcher and coordinator from 1991 to 2000. Before that time Stoop worked as a researcher for SOBE (a research centre for the electrical engineering sector) which – along with himself and two of his colleagues – was absorbed into SOMO in 1991.

‘SOMO has always been very good in picking up new themes and still plays a pioneering role in this respect today. Although the organisation has become more professional and business-like, it always continues to carry out relentlessly critical and independent research studies to fuel and inform public debate. One great example of its work is the CSR debate that was largely initiated by SOMO: this discussion didn’t even exist 15 years ago and it has helped inform and shape general opinion. The relevance of SOMO’s work has only increased. Its impact is becoming larger all the time as an increasing number of its research topics are making their way to the mainstream media and being addressed by a wider audience.’

Unions sharing knowledge and expertise

Although the media gave very sparing attention to multinationals in the early years of SOMO’s existence, the shutdown of the Ford car manufacturing company in Amsterdam in 1981 was an exception. Paul Elshof, SOMO researcher from 1978 to 1994, remembers: ‘The shutdown led to massive strikes and fierce negotiations between the unions and Ford. Under the direction of Henk Kox, SOMO investigated if this closure was economically and rationally founded. Kox linked together the Dutch, Belgian and British unions. All of these efforts ultimately secured good arrangements for Ford labourers. TIE (Transnational Information Exchange) created a way to exchange information between labourers worldwide, as well as between the unions involved in the Ford layoffs. SOMO worked together with them closely, also later on during the international unions project in the cocoa sector, where TIE provided a follow-through to the outcomes of SOMO’s research.’

Expansion of research scope

‘The scope of SOMO’s research developed and grew steadily,’ says De Graaf. ‘In the 1970s, 1980s, we were part of the international solidarity movement and did research for organisations from that movement. We also researched the roles that multinationals were playing in developing countries. Our scope expanded starting in 1975 to include research to support groups of labourers in the Netherlands who worked for multinationals. SOMO provided publications and education for the works councils and union committees of practically all multinational enterprises based in the Netherlands.’

Elshof: ‘Towards the end of the 1980s, we added consultancy to European Works Councils to our activities and we produced many company profiles for them. In 1982, we decided to intensively research three companies: Shell, Akzo and Unilever.’ And since about 2000, SOMO has been carrying out research on the subjects of CSR, labour relations and international trade and investments. As a knowledge institute (consultancy, training, and commissioned research) and network host, SOMO is currently deeply entrenched in Dutch society.

SOMO collaborates

‘After the disintegration of the solidarity movement in the 1990s, SOMO entered into partnerships with organisations in developing countries and in Europe,’ says De Graaf. And it is still forming new partnerships all the time. SOMO has also begun hosting diverse networks, such as Good Electronics, OECD Watch and the MVO Platform, and it coordinates the European makeITfair-campaign. SOMO is an active participant in diverse networks, including Tax Justice, European Coalition for Corporate Justice, Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), Red Puentes and The Global Union Research Network. ‘What else has changed?’ continues De Graaf, ‘The “internet generation” will have trouble imagining this, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s we did research on the basis of hard-copy annual reports, newspaper articles (mainly from the Financieele Dagblad) and went to the old EVD (Agency for International Business and Cooperation) library in The Hague once or twice a week to comb through the interesting journals. There were no other sources. The dissemination of our research results mainly took place through lectures, country working groups and the occasional brochure. To help others carry out independent research, a ‘Multinational Enterprises Research Guide’ was published twice: the first in 1976, the second in 1985. The reports as we know them now didn’t start appearing until much later.’

Tax evasion

A recent feather in SOMO’s cap is the announcement by Minister Ploumen that the Netherlands plans to revise tax agreements with 23 countries, so that tax evasion by multinational enterprises will no longer be possible. De Graaf: ‘We encountered the phenomenon of tax evasion, a term which was new to us then, early on. SOMO had been commissioned by the transportation association to do research on SHV, a large family company in the Rotterdam port with many subsidiaries worldwide. Our study revealed that the company was making inappropriate use of various constructions to avoid paying taxes. All these years SOMO has continued to do research into tax evasion and avoidance, and has stimulated and highlighted the discussion, with good result!

Take control

Forty years on. SOMO continues to fight for a better world. After all, the world is not going to suddenly be perfect tomorrow. So how can we win back control with respect to multinationals, how can we make them more aware of their responsibilities? This will be the focus of the jubilee debate with Eva Joly (member of the European Parliament), Ewald Engelen (financial geographer at the University of Amsterdam) and human rights activist Martyn Day, held on 2 December. You are welcome to join us!