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EWPCC Conference: Broadening horizons – The practice of board-level employee representation across Europe

On 18–19 February, the 2014 Conference of the European Workers’ Participation Competence Centre showcased the findings of the Voice of Labour Survey, the first ever large-scale survey of board-level employee representatives across Europe.

The 2014 Conference of the European Workers’ Participation Competence Centre showcased the findings of the Voice of Labour Survey, the first ever large-scale survey of board-level employee representatives across Europe. The survey was designed and implemented by the ETUI with the financial support of the German Hans Böckler Foundation.

Over 150 board-level employee representatives, academic experts and trade union officials and advisors from all across Europe joined the two-day conference, which was held on 18-19 February 2014.

To set the stage, Jeremy Waddington and Aline Conchon (both ETUI) presented their key findings from the analysis of the responses of over 4500 board-level employee representatives from 17 countries to a detailed survey on their roles, activities and perceptions as employee level representatives.

The survey represents the first-ever comparative and large-scale study of the subject. To the surprise of many, a great deal of variation emerged across the countries regarding the role and impact of employee board-level representation on decision-making within the company, as well as in the degree to which they are embedded into the national and local trade unions and workers’ participation structures in each country.

In order to deepen our understanding of the findings and the specificities of each national system, the participants joined working group sessions, in which practitioners, academics and trade union officials from different countries together compared specific issues, such as the role and influence of employee representatives on the board, networking practices, dealing with confidentiality requirements, and relationships with the trade unions. The participants worked directly with the survey findings, generating a shared understanding of the nuances of practice and the extent of the real differences between countries.

Having thus established some common ground, the participants moved on to explore the implications of the survey findings for the prospects of the development of a European dimension of board-level employee representation. After a plenary session in which some next steps in practice, policy-making and research were outlined and reflected upon, the participants focused their discussions in working groups addressing the meaning of the research for practice in European multinationals, policy-making at both the national and European levels, research, and the trade unions’ training and support activities.

In the final session of the conference, Inger Marie Hagen and Till Jansen, both of whom have conducted extensive empirical research on board level employee representation in the Nordic countries and in Germany, reflected on the survey findings and the discussions held at the Conference with respect to the academic research agenda.

The identified variation in the actual practice of board-level employee representation raises important questions about the contribution of such forms of representation towards the development of a European conception of workers’ participation -- both politically as well as in practice, for example when different models co-exist within companies. What contribution can a better understanding of the opportunities and limits of board-level representation make to a more coherent, strategic, better-articulated system of workers’ participation, which is capable of responding to the increasingly integrated company decision-making?

It was the particular mix of participants from the world of practice and research, as well as the national and European-level trade unions, which proved especially fruitful in better understanding the survey findings and energetically thinking about where to go from here with this new, genuinely European understanding. It is clear that the survey findings have already thrown up a host of exciting new questions and possibilities. The ETUI looks forward to exploring these further in the future in our contributions to practice, research and the policy-making process.

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