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Workplace Representation

Employee representation at the workplace was primarily through unions, or did not take place at all. However, legislation, which came into effect in 2007, allows for the election of employee representatives both where there is a union and where there is not. These representatives, who can also conduct collective bargaining if there is no union, are now more common than union representatives.

The main form of workplace representation in Estonia in the past was through the unions at the workplace. Until recently the only alternative was the possibility of an “authorised representative” having a role where trade unionists were not present. In practice this possibility was only taken up rarely. However, new legislation (Employees’ Trustee Act), which came into force in February 2007, provides for employees’ representatives with significant powers.


In general terms, under this legislation, employees’ representatives can be elected, if either the union or 10% of the employees want this. These employee representatives have a range of rights, particularly in the area of information and consultation. They can also be involved in collective bargaining if there is no union. If union representatives are present, they too enjoy a number of the same information and consultation rights as the elected employee representatives. 


Figures from Statistics Estonia show somewhat contradictory development in terms of the importance of elected employee representatives. There is a clear growth in the number of organisations with elected employee representatives, with the proportion of organisations with such representation increasing from 13.1% in 2009 to 18.0% in 2015.[1] At the same time, the proportion of employees in organisation with elected employee representatives has fallen, from 27.4% of the total in 2009 to 20.1% in 2015.[2] This suggests that fewer larger companies have this form of representation.


In contrast the proportion of organisations with a trade union has fallen over the same period, from 6.4% in 2009 to 5.8% in 2015.[3] There are no figures on the proportion of employees working in organisations with a trade union presence, but it also seems likely to have fallen.


These national figures can be compared with the results of Eurofound’s 2013 European Company Survey. These show that 37% of establishments with at least 10 employees had some form of official employee representation, which may be either a union or employee representatives. This is above the EU28 average of 32%. As elsewhere in Europe, larger organisations are more likely to have such a structure than smaller ones. Among establishments with more than 250 employees, 61% had some form of employee representation.[4]


Numbers and structure


The numbers and structure of union representation at the workplace depend on the rules of the union.


The 2007 legislation does not lay down the number of employee representatives to be elected. It states that the employees “may elect several representatives” but this depends on “agreement with the employer”.


There is no employment threshold for the election of employee representatives, although the time-off arrangements only apply when there are at least five employees, and some information and consultation provisions only apply if the employer has at least 30 employees (see section on tasks and rights).


The calculation of the number of employees is based on the six month’s average of the number of employees at the date when the obligation to inform and consult arises.


If there are several employee representatives they can decide to elect a “chief representative” from among themselves, who then organises the activities of the representatives. 


The legislation does not say how frequently the employee representatives should meet.


Tasks and rights


The key task of workplace trade unions is negotiation of collective agreements, and the union also has a role in ensuring that labour legislation is complied with at the workplace.


Workplace unions also have information and consultation rights, and these have been clarified as a result of the legislation which came into force in 2007, which gives unions the same rights to information and consultation as other employee representatives (see below).


Where there are at least 30 employees, the employer should inform and consult employee representatives on possible significant staff changes, including those affecting agency staff and decisions likely to produce major changes in work organisation or contracts of employment. (This obligation does not apply to organisations in the public service.) Employee representatives should also be given details of the organisation’s annual reports.


Where there is a union representative, he or she should also be informed and consulted in the same way, and where there is no employee representative, the information and consultation should be with the whole workforce.


The law also requires employers to consult with employee representatives, either union representatives or elected representatives, in cases of collective redundancy, business transfer or the reduction of pay because of a lack of work.


Election and term of office


The election and term of office of union representatives depend on the union’s rules.


The decision to elect employee representatives must be taken by a general meeting of all employees, and this meeting can be called, either by the trade union, if one has been set up in the organisation, or by a majority of union members, if there is no union body in the organisation, or by 10% of all employees. The general meeting is only quorate – that is, it can only take valid decisions – if at least half of all employees participate. The legislation states that the election must be by secret ballot and all employees and the union can present candidates, but other detailed rules for the election are decided by the general meeting. There are no specific conditions to stand as employee representative (trustee) or vote in the general meeting. The legislation (Employees’ Trustee Act - § 2) states only that “a trustee is an employee of an employer who is elected by a general meeting of the employees of the employer”.


Employee representatives are elected for three years unless the general meeting has decided otherwise.


Protection against dismissal


Employee representatives, whether trade union representatives or employee representatives elected at the general meeting, have some limited protection against dismissal, which lasts during the individual’s period of office and for one year afterwards.


Before dismissing an employee representative the employer is obliged to seek the views of the employees or the union who chose the representative. The employees or the union should respond within ten working days, and the employer must take their opinions into account and provide a justification if they are disregarded (Employment Contracts Act: § 94).  Employee representatives also have greater protection in cases of redundancy for economic reasons (§ 89) or unfair dismissal, where the legislation states that they may not be dismissed unless this is “reasonably impossible when considering mutual interests” (§ 107).


In addition, there is a general obligation on employers not to discriminate against employees on the basis of their representation of the interests of employees or their membership of a union.


Time off and other resources


Both trade union and employee representatives are entitled to paid time off to carry out their duties. In the case of union representatives, “at least one” should be allowed this time off. In the case of employee representatives, all of those elected at the general meeting would have this right, but the general meeting may only elect more than one employee representative with the agreement of the employer. The relationship between the amount of time off and the number of individuals involved is the same for both union and employee representatives. However, there is an important difference: in the case of union representatives, the numbers relate to union members, whereas for employee representatives they relate to all employees. The figures on the number of union members are provided by the union.


The figures on time-off rights are as follows:


Number of employees (for employee representatives)

Number of union members (for union representatives)

Hours per week







500 plus



The employer should also give the trade union representatives a room, if possible, and space to hold a trade union event once a month.


The Employees’ Trustee Act also gives employee representatives the use of premises and other resources necessary for their duties, but only “upon agreement with the employer”. They also have the right to involve experts in the consultation process, although it does not state whether their costs are borne by the employer.


Training rights


Trade union representatives are entitled to five days off from work a year to participate in training or other trade union activities. Two days of this are paid.


Employee representatives are entitled to necessary training “to a reasonable extent”. This training is in paid time and employers “may agree” to pay the expenses involved.

Representation at group level


Union structures may produce representation at group level but the legislation does not provide for this.


[1] Statistics Estonia, database Table WQU93: Enterprises by group of enterprises and existence of confidential person,  http://pub.stat.ee/px-web.2001/I_Databas/Social_life/19Worklife_quality/10Work_organisation/10Work_organisation.asp (Accessed 18.12.2018)

[2] Statistics Estonia, database Table WQU94: Employees by group of employees and existence of confidential person in the enterprise http://pub.stat.ee/px-web.2001/I_Databas/Social_life/19Worklife_quality/10Work_organisation/10Work_organisation.asp (Accessed 18.12.2018)

[3] Statistics Estonia, database Table WQU95: Enterprises by group of enterprises and existence of trade union http://pub.stat.ee/px-web.2001/I_Databas/Social_life/19Worklife_quality/10Work_organisation/10Work_organisation.asp (Accessed 18.12.2018)

[4] Eurofound (2015), Third European Company Survey – Overview report: Workplace practices – Patterns, performance and well-being, Figures for Table 44

L. Fulton (2021) National Industrial Relations, an update (2019-2021). Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.