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Workplace Representation

Employee representation in Austria is through the works councils, which by law can be set up in all workplaces with at least five employees, although in reality they are rare in smaller workplaces. They have important information and consultation rights, which amount to an effective veto in a few areas.

Workers in Austria have a clear legal right to representation in all but the smallest workplaces. Provided there are at least five employees in a workplace, the employees can set up a works council (Betriebsrat), which represents all employees. In practice very few of the smallest workplaces have such works councils. They are more common in workplaces with more than 50 employees, but many medium-sized companies also do not have a works council.

 

The works council is not directly a trade union body. It is elected by all employees and non-trade unionists can also stand. But in most cases the unions play a crucial part in its effective operation and more than three-quarters of works council members are union members. The unions can be invited in to give advice and in certain circumstances they can play a key role in initially setting up the works council and also offer support, such as training, information, legal and economic advice.

 

The reality of union influence over works councils is reflected in the fact that unlike in other countries where the works councils have similar powers, such as Germany or the Netherlands, it is very rare for there to be another separate trade union structure in the workplace. Works councils are the basic unit for union work. Its members distribute union material, play an active role in union campaigns and in mobilising and recruiting new union members.

 

In addition to the works council the Austrian system provides for the setting up of a separate structure to represent young people, where there are at least 5 employees aged under 18 (or under 21 if they are apprentices).

 

Numbers and structure

 

Employees have the right to set up a works council in all workplaces with at least five employees (see table).

Number of employees

Number of works council members

5-9

1

10-19

2

20-50

3

51-100

4

101-200

5

Above 200, the number of works council members increases by one for every 100 employees or part thereof until 1,000, after which it increases by one for every 400 or part thereof.

 

The works council consists of representatives of the workers – there is no management involvement – and in most cases works councils can be either set up for all employees or separately for manual and non-manual workers. If there at least four works council members, in other words if there are more than 50 employees, one of them can be an external trade union representative, who is not employed at the workplace. In practice this is very rare.

 

The works council should meet at least once a month and should have a joint meeting with the employer at least once every three months. This joint meeting can be monthly if the works council wishes.

 

Tasks and rights

 

The powers of the works council are greatest in social and employment rather than in economic and financial areas. In some cases in effect it has a right of veto - the employer cannot act without the works council's agreement.

 

In economic and financial issues the main rights of the works council are to be informed and consulted. The employer must discuss the economic and financial position of the business with the works council at least every three months. The employer is generally required to give the works council a copy of the annual report and accounts and to understand them the works council can call in experts from the union or from the chambers of labour.

 

The works council has more extensive rights where major economic changes, which could damage the interests of the employees, are planned. These could be the partial or complete closure of the business, transfers of production, or relocation. Here the works council and the employer must reach agreement on a compromise. If this proves impossible an external conciliation body specially set up for the purpose decides the issue. In bigger workplaces, with more than 200 employees, the fact that the works council raises objections to major changes of this sort can delay any action for up to four weeks.

 

In employment and social issues the works council has a general right to oversee the actions of the employer, to ensure that the law and collective agreements are properly observed. It can make suggestions for improving working conditions, including training arrangements and health and safety. It must be informed about every planned dismissal and if it objects it can take the case to the labour court. It must be informed and consulted about the business's employment plans, including the recruitment of new staff, and individual transfers and promotions.

 

In some areas the employer needs the agreement of the works council, or failing that a decision of the specially constituted conciliation body, to act. These include: works rules – such as the prohibition of alcohol or smoking, or the arrangements for reporting sickness; the normal start and end of the working day; the date on which wages and salaries are paid; the running of in-house training facilities; and the introduction of detailed computer based personnel records. In a few instances the works council has a complete right of veto - the employer cannot go to the conciliation body. These include the introduction of: disciplinary procedures; monitoring systems, such as closed circuit TV; and pay systems, such as piece-work linked to performance, unless this has been agreed in an industry-wide collective agreement.

 

The works council is also frequently involved in organising a range of cultural and social activities, such as works outings, as well as helping individual employees with problems outside the workplace.

 

Works councils are not primarily involved in negotiations on pay which are at industry level. However, in some cases works councils negotiate additional improvements as well as dealing with grading structures, profit-sharing systems, and works pensions. In addition some industry-level agreements also give works councils the opportunity to agree variations in the general increase, within tightly defined limits.

 

Election and term of office

 

Works council members are elected by the whole workforce on the basis of lists. Candidates must be supported by at least twice the number of signatures as there are works council members. Often there will only be one list but there may sometimes be several, normally based around competing individuals. In very large workplaces there may be lists linked to the different political factions in the Austrian trade union movement, the ÖGB.

 

The term of office is four years.

 

Protection against dismissal

 

Members of the works council can in most cases only be dismissed if their dismissal has been previously approved by the labour court, and the court will only approve their dismissal in very limited circumstances.

 

Time-off and other resources

 

Works council members have the right to the paid time-off necessary for them to represent the employees, and in larger workplaces one or more members does nothing but works council duties. In workplaces with 150 to 700 employees there is one full-time works council member; 701 to 3,000 - two; more than 3,000 - three; with one extra for every additional 3,000.

 

In addition every works council member has the right to up to three weeks paid training leave (occasionally extended to five) during their four-year period in office. In workplaces with more than 200 employees one works council member can also have up to one year's unpaid training leave.

 

The employer is also required to provide the works council with an office and the necessary office materials. The extent of this will depend on the size of the workplace. In large workplaces the employer may also provide a paid administrative worker for the works council.

 

In addition to the resources provided by the employer, the works council can collect funds from the employees, who must first have agreed this at a works meeting. The amount collected in this way, which is largely used for social events like works outings, cannot be more than 0.5% of each employee's gross pay.

 

Representation at group level

 

In cases where a business consists of several workplaces but operates as a single economic unit, a central works council should be set up. This is intended to provide effective employee representation at the level at which decisions, particularly on economic issues, are being taken.

 

It is also possible to set up a works council at group level in a group composed of several different companies, if the works councils themselves decide to do so.

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.