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Workplace Representation

Employee representation varies across Europe, combining both representation through local union bodies and through works councils or similar structures elected by all employees. In the 28 EU states plus Norway, there are four states where the main representation is through works councils with no statutory provision for unions at the workplace; eight where representation is essentially through the unions; another 12 where it is a mixture of the two; and a further five where unions were the sole channel, but legislation now offers additional options. In many countries, national legislation implementing the EU’s information and consultation directive has complicated the picture. One common feature of most states is that unions play a central role.

 

The structures

There are important differences in the formal structures for employee representation at the workplace in the 28 EU member states and Norway.

 

In four states – Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – the main workplace representation is through works councils, elected by all employees, and the law makes no provision for workplace structures for unions.

 

In 12 others – Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain – the law, or, in the case of Norway, the basic agreement, provides for both union and works council structures to exist at the workplace at the same time. However, there are major differences between the countries in this group.

 

Works councils are much more common in some countries than others. In Greece, they exist more in theory than in practice, and in Portugal too works councils are relatively rare. The situation seems similar in the Czech Republic, where, for a period, works councils could only be set up if there was no union, and there are still very few. Slovakia also only permitted works council to be set up in workplaces with unions in 2003. However, although this is now possible, in practice it hardly ever happens. Unions are present in twice as many companies in Slovakia as works councils, and where there is a union presence it is very unlikely that a works council will exist.

 

In Poland works councils – a relatively new structure in the country – were at the start in most cases chosen by the union, although later legislative changes required them to be elected. In practice, many of the works councils that were set up initially have ceased to exist and they are now relatively rare.

 

In Hungary, and Slovenia, works councils are more widely established and in both countries unions and works councils are found at the same workplaces, which union members generally playing a key role. In Croatia too works councils are common. However, it is possible for the rights and duties of the works council to be taken on by the union representative, and there are some signs that this is becoming more common.

 

The situation is different in Norway and Spain, reflecting the particular roles works councils play in the two states. In Norway, works councils exist alongside union representation in larger companies, but their role is essentially to improve competitiveness, rather than represent employees. Spanish works councils, on the other hand, can undertake collective bargaining and are closely tied to the union.

 

Finally, in Belgium and France, works councils exist alongside the union structure in larger companies, but in both states the union is clearly the dominant partner.

 

In five states – Bulgaria, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia and the UK – the pattern is different. In all of them, unions in the past provided the only channel for representation, but now there is the legal possibility of elected employee representatives being in place alongside the union. One key difference between this group and countries like Belgium and France is that the legal rights of these elected representatives are very limited. The law defines how they should operate in Bulgaria, Estonia and Latvia, while in Ireland and the UK this is left to negotiated agreements.

 

In the remaining eight states – Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Sweden – workplace representation is essentially through the unions in the first instance, although the rights they enjoy vary considerably.

 

There are also variations in how the unions exercise these rights. In Cyprus, Finland, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Sweden it is done through the existing union structures, but the situation is slightly different in Denmark and Italy (see below).

 

The EU directive (2002/14/EC), which required member states to ensure that all employees had access to information and consultation, meant that this group of countries had to make changes to their procedures. This was generally done by making exceptional arrangements for workers without union representation.  In Finland, for example, employees can elect non-union representatives, but only if there are no union representatives for that group of workers, or where non-union employees are in the majority.

 

Over and above these variations in structure, there are further differences in the powers of workplace representatives, the thresholds from which they must be set up, their election arrangements and term of office. These are examined in the country sections. The country sections also look at representatives’ protections against dismissal, their time off and the resources at their disposal, as well as whether there are arrangements for employee representation at group level.

Workplace representation in Europe, 2014

     
 

Through employees representatives

Through union bodies

Main employee representation at workplace through:

Works council or
 employee representative

Threshold

Union delegation or
 union representative

Threshold a)

Austria

X

From 5 employees.

There is no direct trade union representation in the workplace. But in most cases the unions play a crucial part in the works councils' effective operation.

Works council.

Belgium

X

From 101 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union and works council – but union dominates.

Bulgaria

X

No threshold / from 20 or 50 employees. b)

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union – but law also provides for the election of employee representatives.

Croatia

X

From 20 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union and works council – but where no works council exist unions can take over its rights and duties.

Czech Republic

X

No threshold.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union – but works council can be set up as well.

Denmark

X c)

From 35 employees.

X

 In most agreements the right to elect a trade union representative starts once there are more than 5 employees in the workplace.

Union – but employee groups from outside the union can be represented in the structure.

Estonia

X

No threshold.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union – but since 2007 employee representatives can be elected as well.

Finland

X
 (if there are no union representatives)

From 20 employees.

X

Each workplace has a trade union representative.

Union

France

X
 (two bodies: employee delegates / works council)

From 11 employees / from 50 employees.

X

From 50 employees.

Union and works council / employee delegates – but union dominates.

Germany

X

From 5 employees.

There is no direct trade union representation in the workplace. But the unions have a major influence on the works councils' operation.

Works council.

Greece

X

From 50 employees (from 20 employees if there is no union body).

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union – works councils exist in theory but not often in practice.

Hungary

X

From 51 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union and works council.

Ireland

X d)

From 50 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union – but other structures are possible and since 2006 these can be triggered by employees.

Italy

X

From 16 employees.

The elected employee representatives are essentially union bodies.

Union – although now elected by all employees.

Latvia

X

From 5 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union – although possible to elect other representatives since 2002.

Lithuania

X

(If there are no union representatives)

No threshold.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union – or works council (since 2003) if there is no union.

Luxembourg

X

From 15 employees.

Unions have important rights in this structure and the majority of employee representatives are union members.

Works council / employee delegates (with employee delegates replacing the works council).

Malta

X e)

From 50 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union.

Netherlands

X

From 50 employees.

In many organisations collective agreements give trade unions at work specific rights.

Works council.

Poland

X

From 50 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union and works council.

Portugal

X

No threshold.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union – works councils exist in theory but less frequently in practice.

Romania

X

(If there are no union representatives)

From 21 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union – other employee representation is rare.

Slovak Republic

X

From 50 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union and works council-but mutually exclusive.

Slovenia

X

From 21 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union and works council.

Spain

X

From 11 employees.

X

From 250 employees.

Works council – although dominated by unions.

Sweden

No works council.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union.

United Kingdom

X f)

From 50 employees.

X

Depends on union agreement.

Union – but other structures are possible and since 2005 these can be triggered by employees.

Norway

X

From 100 employees (obligatory).

X

The number of union representatives is linked directly to the number of union members in the company who belong to each union confederation.

Union – “works councils” exist in some companies but their role is to improve competitiveness.

Switzerland

X

.

At least some of the employee representatives are members of a trade union and/or advised by trade unions.

Works council.

(a) Often there is no threshold by law for union representatives, the number then depends on the rules of the union. However, there are often legal limits on the number of union representatives who can benefit from specific legal rights and job protections. ‒
 (b) There are no specific rules on the numbers or thresholds for employee representatives elected to represent employees’ social and economic interests. However, the legislation is more precise where employee representatives are elected for the purposes of information and consultation. These representatives should be elected in companies employing 50 or more employees, or in workplaces employing 20 or more. ‒
 (c) The Danish equivalent of the works council is the cooperation committee. ‒
 (d) The legislation (passed in 2006 as a result of the EU directive on information and consultation) does not require all companies covered by it to establish employee bodies for information and consultation. The process only begins if 10% of employees, with a lower limit of 15 and an upper limit of 100, ask for information and consultation rights or the employer takes the initiative. Negotiations then start between the employer and employee representatives, who automatically include union representatives if the employer recognises unions and they represent at least 10% of the workforce. ‒
 (e) In Malta it is the union that normally represents the employee at workplace level. But EU directives have led to new arrangements for non-unionised employees. The 2006 legislation, requiring the setting up of information and consultation structures, has applied to companies with 50 or more employees from March 2008 and applied to larger companies before that date. The legislation does not set out the precise numbers of information and consultation representatives, only that as well as the representatives of the recognised union – number unspecified – “no more than one representative” should be elected for each category of employees not represented by a recognised union. ‒
 (f) The Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004 give employees in businesses with 50 or more employees the right to require the employer to set up an employee information and consultation forum, which has the right to be informed and consulted on a regular basis about issues in the business for which they work. Consultative bodies established under these Regulations are typically called information and consultation bodies, or employee consultation forums, and have some similarities to continental European style National Works Councils, but are considerably less onerous from an employer’s perspective.

Sources: European Worker Participation Competence Centre (EWPCC): http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations/Countries (July 2015) and Baker & McKenzie (2014), The Global Employer: Focus on Trade Unions and Works Councils, Key Workplace Documents, Cornell University ILR School.

The role of unions

One common thread that runs through most of the states is the important role that trade unions play in workplace representation. This is clear from the Nordic countries and Italy, where the union channel is the only channel; and it is clear from those countries with just works councils, where union candidates take a clear majority of seats, as in Germany or the Netherlands.

In many of the countries where both structures exist at the same time and works councils are found widely, unions play a key role. This is the case in France and Belgium, where the individuals involved are often the same and the unions dominate. The position seems similar in Hungary and Slovenia.  In Greece and Portugal works councils are relatively rare but are most frequently found in strongly unionised workplaces. In Slovakia, in contrast, works councils hardly exist where there is union organisation.

 

A union presence is also critical for effective representation at the workplace in those countries without strong legislative support for unions, such as the UK and many of the states in Central and Eastern Europe. In these states, the evidence suggests that without unions, there is little workplace representation – a situation which the legislation implementing the EU directive on information and consultation has not changed.

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.