Employee representation at the workplace is primarily through unions, or does 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. If there is no union these representatives can be involved in collective bargaining.
The main form of workplace representation in Estonia is 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 was introduced in December 2006, which provides for employees’ representatives with significant powers.
In general terms, under the new 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.
The legislation came into effect on 1 February 2007, and as yet no research has been conducted which would allow a detailed assessment of its effects.1
However, the 2009 Statistics Estonia survey looked at whether there was an employee representative in the organisation, elected either by all employees or by the trade union members. It found that 13.0% of organisations had one or more employee representatives, compared with 6.0% who had a union. However, the gap between the two types of representation was much greater in smaller organisations than in larger ones. In organisations with between 50 and 249 employees, 36.4% had employee representation while only 20.6% had a union. In those with 250 or more employees, 51.0% had employee representation and 48.0% had a union.2
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).
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 and decisions likely to produce major changes in work organisation or contracts of employment. (This is essentially the wording from the EU directive on information and consultation.) They should also be given details of the 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.
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. Employee representatives also have greater protection in cases of unfair dismissal and collective redundancy, where the legislation states that they may not be dismissed unless this is “reasonably impossible when considering mutual interests”.
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 representatives 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 are as follows:
Number of employees (for employee representatives) / Number of union members (for union representatives)
Hours per week
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.
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 recent legislation also gives employee representatives the right to involve experts in the consultation process, although it does not state whether their costs are borne by the employer.
Representation at group level
Union structures may produce representation at group level but the legislation does not provide for this.
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.