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Workplace Representation

The local union grouping is still the main way employees are represented at the workplace. In addition, a works council, which has fewer rights, can be set up. Rules which said that a works council had to be dissolved if a local union was established were declared to be unconstitutional in 2008. In practice works councils are rare. In most cases there is either a union or nothing.

The main structure for representing employees at the workplace is the local trade union grouping, which only needs three individuals to set it up. This was the only structure available until 2001, but since then it has been possible to set up a works council or representatives concerned with health and safety. In order for this to happen, at least one third of the workforce must ask for such a body. Under the revised labour code, which was passed in 2006 and came into effect at the start of 2007, works councils or health and safety representatives could only be established if there was no trade union in the company, and they had to be dissolved if a trade union organisation was subsequently set up and signed a collective agreement. However, in March 2008 the constitutional court ruled that this legislation was unconstitutional. It is now possible for a company to have both a union and a works council or health and safety representatives.

 

In practice, very few works councils have been set up and the dominant structure remains the local union organisation, although the majority of companies have nothing at all.

Numbers and structure

Where employee representation is through the local union organisation it is for the union to decide the numbers involved. Works councils should have between three and 15 members. The precise number, which must always be odd, is decided by the employer after consultation with the employees who initially asked for a works council to be set up.

Tasks and rights

There are differences between the tasks and rights of the employee representatives at the workplace, depending on whether they are part of a union organisation or a works council.

 

Only the trade unions have a right to be involved in collective bargaining. But there are also differences in the areas of information, consultation and where the agreement of employee representatives is necessary to make changes.

 

Both the local union and the works council have the right, as representatives of the employees, to information on the following issues: the economic and financial position of the company and its probable development; the company’s activities and their impact on the environment; and planned changes in the company’s structure, status and business activities. Both bodies also have the right to information on key working conditions concerns; structural changes such as rationalisation; measures affecting employment, particularly collective redundancies; the number of employees and likely future employment developments; the transfer of the company to another owner; a wide range of health and safety topics; measures to ensure equal treatment of women and men; details of permanent employment, which would be of interest to existing temporary employees; and issues linked to the establishment of a European works council. (Where there are fewer than 10 employees, the representatives do not have the right to information on the company’s economic situation or its activities and their environmental impact.)

 

As well as all these issues the local trade union organisation has a legal right to information on: developments in wages and salaries including the average level of pay and its composition for various occupational categories in the company; the company’s economic situation; workload and the pace of work; changes in work organisation; systems of employee pay and appraisal; training; and measures relating to childcare, care of disabled persons, improvements in occupational hygiene and measures relating to employees’ social and cultural needs. The union should also be given details of the appointment of new employees.

 

In addition to the information rights, both unions and works councils, as representatives of the employees, must be consulted about: the probable economic development of the company; structural changes, such as rationalisation; measures affecting employment, particularly collective redundancies; the number of employees and likely future employment developments; the transfer of the company to another owner; the schedule of dates for annual leave as well as the maximum length of each block of leave (subject to a two-week minimum); some health and safety matters; and issues linked to the setting up of a European works council. (Where there are fewer than 10 employees, the representatives do not have the right to information on the company’s economic situation or its activities and their environmental impact.)

 

The union must also be consulted about a number of other concerns. These include: the transfer of individuals where they do not agree; the collective regulation of working hours, such as night working or working on normal rest days; the date on which employees are to be paid, unless this is set out in the collective agreement; the arrangements under which employees compensate their employer for damage they have caused or money they have lost; and compensation for those suffering from an occupational disease.

 

Trade unions are also the only bodies with whom a number of issues must be agreed. These include: short-time working arrangements in circumstances where a temporary drop in orders or sales means there is not sufficient work for employees to work their normal hours – in such cases the amount to be paid must be agreed with the union, subject to a minimum of 60% of employees’ average earnings (there are fixed arrangements where the lack of work is caused by a shortage of power or raw materials – where the employees get at least 80% of average earnings – or bad weather – where they get at least 60%); the use of any funds established to meet cultural and social needs; and changes to the company’s work rules or work regulations. These work regulations describe the duties of the employees, setting out the details of the provisions of the labour code and other regulations which apply, but taking into account the specific conditions of the workplace. They can only be modified with the prior written consent of the union active in the company and without that consent the modifications are null and void.

 

The revised labour code, which came into effect in 2007, gave trade unions the right to obtain and inspect company documents to ensure that the employer was complying with relevant health and safety regulations, as well as allowing them to prohibit practices which threatened the health and safety of employees. However, the constitutional court ruled in March 2008 that these powers should be exercised by the state and not by the unions and were therefore unconstitutional. As a result the unions now have much more limited inspection rights in the area of health and safety and can no longer issue instruction on health and safety matters.

Election and term of office

The elections and term of office of local trade union representatives are largely for the union to determine, although the legislation also says that employers should “facilitate the holding of elections”.

In the case of works councils, nominations are made by the employees. There is a secret ballot in work time and members serve for three years.

Protection against dismissal

Discrimination against either union representatives or members of a works council is illegal. The dismissal of trade union representatives involved in consultation with the employer, either during their period of office or for one year afterwards, must be agreed by the trade union organisation or by a court.

Time-off and other resources

Employee representatives must be given “the necessary” paid time off. For trade union organisations, this will typically be partial release from normal work in workplaces with between 400 and 600 trade union members and full release from normal work where there are at least 600 union members. In workplaces with 1,500 or more trade union members two people will be given full release from normal work. Trade unionists are also entitled to five days’ paid time off per year for union training, unless “serious operational reasons” prevent this.

Employers should also provide “within an appropriate scope… rooms with the necessary furnishings and equipment”, and they should pay for their maintenance and operation as well as the documentation employee representatives need. However, the precise extent of the support to be provided is not specified in the legislation.

Representation at group level

Trade unions will normally set up group committees, where there are trade union structures in several companies in the same group. There is no legal provision for works councils at group level.

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.