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Workplace Representation

A workplace can have both a workplace union organisation and a works council, and both have specific powers. However, it is much more usual to have a union than a works council, and works councils in unionised workplaces are very rare.

Until 2002 local trade union bodies were the only organisations legally entitled to represent employees at the workplace. However, legislation introduced in April 2002 allowed for the introduction of works councils, initially, only in companies without trade union representatives, and, a year later in July 2003, in all workplaces, including those with unions.

 

Since then, the balance of powers and responsibilities between the local union organisation and the works council has varied in line with changes of government, although it has been stable in recent years. In broad terms, under the current Labour Code (Articles 229-240) both the local union organisation and the works council have rights to information, monitoring the employer’s compliance with legal obligations, negotiations, and joint decision-making in certain areas. However, only union organisations can conduct collective bargaining, and, if a works council and a local union body exist in the same organisation, negotiating and joint decision-making rights are in the hands of the union body. Trade unions do not just act on behalf of their members but also for employees who are not in a trade union.

 

There are different thresholds for local union bodies and works councils and, in practice, very few workplaces have both a local union body and a works council.

 

Unions at the workplace can represent employees provided they have least three members. This is the minimum number required to set up a workplace union organisation, and a list of all union members must be provided to the employer. The threshold for setting up a works council, is at least 50 employees, although in smaller workplaces a “works trustee” can be elected, provided there are at least three employees. The election of a works council or works trustee is not automatic. It must be requested in writing by at least 10% of the employees.

 

In practice, a survey from 2013 indicates that workplace union structures exist in around twice as many companies and organisations as works councils/works trustees. The 2013 survey of working conditions, undertaken by the Trexima consultancy for the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and the Family found that almost a third of the companies and organisations surveyed (32.9%) had a local union organisation, compared with just a sixth (16.8%) with a works council or a works trustee.[1]

 

However, the figures also reveal that works councils or works trustees are extremely rare where there is a union presence. In 2013, out of 5,063 organisations surveyed, there were 853 companies and organisations with a works council or a works trustee (16.8%). However, 843 of these were in companies and organisations “without union membership”. Only 10 workplaces (0.2% of the total) had a union and a works council/works trustee.

 

The variations between industries in the extent to which employees are represented by local union organisations or by works councils/works trustees are, therefore, a reflection of union strength. In areas like public administration, water and sewerage and education, local union bodies outnumber works councils/works trustees by either 10 or eight to one. However, in information and communication, there are three times as many works councils/works trustees as workplace union organisations. Manufacturing is somewhere in the middle with slightly more works councils/works trustees – 373 (28.2% of the total) – than workplace union organisations – 312 (23.5%).

 

An indication of the overall extent of employee representation at the workplace is provided by the results of Eurofound’s 2013 European Company Survey. These show that, in 2013, 38% of establishments in Slovakia with at least 10 employees had some form of official employee representation, either a workplace union organisation, a works council or a works trustee. This is slightly higher than the EU28 average of 32%. As elsewhere in Europe, larger organisations were more likely to have such a structure than smaller ones. The survey shows that 73% of establishments with more than 250 employees had representation, but even among smaller ones, those with between 50 and 249 employees, the percentage of workplaces with representation was relatively high at 57%. In smaller workplaces in Slovakia, those with between 10 and 49 employees, the survey indicates that more than a third (35%) had employee representation.[2]

 

Numbers and structure

 

Apart from the requirement that a local union organisation must have at least three members, there are no legal regulations on the numbers and structure of the local union organisations. These are for the union to decide.

 

Works councils must be set up in organisations with at least 50 employees provided that 10% of the workforce requests this in writing. The Labour Code does not make a distinction between full-time or part-time employees, although the general definition in the Labour Code as someone, “who performs dependent work for the employer”, seems to exclude agency workers. If there are fewer than 50 employees but more than three, and 10% of the workforce has called for it, a single “works trustee” must be elected, who has the same rights and duties as a works council.

 

The size of the works council is as follows:

 

Number of employees

Number of works council members

50-100 employees

3 members

101-500 employees

1 additional member for each additional 100 employees

501-1,000 employees

1 additional member

1,000+

1 additional member for each additional 1,000 employees

 

 

The law does not say anything about the frequency or organisation of meetings, although it states that, if there is both a union and a works council in a workplace, a representative of the union body can attend meetings of the works council if an absolute majority of the works council’s members are in favour. (In practice it is very rare for both bodies to exist in the same organisation.)

 

Tasks and rights

 

Employees, either through a union or a works council (works trustee in smaller organisations), are to participate in the “creation of just and satisfactory working conditions” through

  • joint decision making,
  • negotiations,
  • the right to information, and
  • monitoring the employer’s compliance with the law and collective agreements.

 

Joint decision-making rights cover a series of specific issues set out at various points in the Labour Code. They include:

  • health and safety rules, although a decision by the Labour Inspectorate can replace agreement with the employee representatives (Article 39);
  • work rules, which are invalid without the prior consent of the employee representatives (Article 84);
  • the uneven distribution of working hours beyond a period of four months, although a collective agreement can replace an agreement with employee representatives (Article 87);
  • the introduction of flexible working, where again a collective agreement is an alternative to an agreement with employee representatives (Article 88);
  • issues around the organisation of working time, including start and finish times and breaks (Articles 90, 91 and 93);
  • overtime arrangements (Article 97);
  • arduous and stressful work at night (Article 98);
  • holiday arrangements (Article 111);
  • changes in workloads, unless this is fixed by a collective agreement, although a decision by the Labour Inspectorate can replace agreement with the employee representatives (Article 133); and
  • situations where an employee cannot work because of external reasons (Article 142).

 

The requirement to negotiate “with the goal of achieving an agreement” covers the more general issues set out in Article 237. These are:

  • planned and future levels of employment, especially where it is under threat;
  • the employer’s social policy, and actions to improve health and the work environment;
  • decisions which may lead to changes in work organisation or employees’ contractual terms;
  • other changes such as the ending of some activities or the taking on of new ones, mergers, acquisitions and divestments and changes in the organisation’s legal structure; and
  • measures to prevent accidents and occupational diseases and protect employees’ health.

 

There are also specific issues where the employer must discuss or consult with employee representatives. These are:

  • business transfers (Article 29);
  • collective redundancies (Article 73);
  • dismissals (Article 74);
  • the even distribution of working hours (Article 86);
  • working on non-working days (Article 94);
  • nightwork (article 98);
  • varying arrangements for the provision of meals outside normal working hours (Article 152);
  • training (Article 153);
  • the arrangements for employees with disabilities (Article 159); and
  • the employer’s liabilities in the case of injuries at work or occupational disease. (Article 198).

 

Information rights cover the more general issues on which there should be negotiations, such as planned an future levels of employment, and employee representatives are also entitled to information on the economic and financial situation and future prospects of their employer.

 

The rights relating to the carrying out of inspections and monitoring activities are intended to ensure that that the obligations resulting from labour law and from any collective agreement covering the workplace are fulfilled. This gives employee representatives the right to enter premises at an agreed time, to ask for documents, to make proposals to remedy faults and to report failings to the appropriate authorities.

 

In health and safety, only the union has a specific right to carry out safety inspections and make proposals for improvements, reporting deficiencies to the labour inspectorate.

 

If only one employee representative body, either a union or a works council (works trustee), exists at the workplace, it carries out all of these duties, although a works council cannot undertake collective bargaining on terms and conditions and it does not have the health and safety inspection rights.

 

If there is both a union organisation and a works council at a workplace – in practice this is rare – then the powers of the two bodies are divided. The union body is involved in joint decision making, collective bargaining, inspections and the receipt of information; the works council is only involved in negotiation (although not collective bargaining) and in receiving information.

 

The Labour Code requires employee representatives, whether unions or works council members, to cooperate closely.

Election and term of office

 

The election and term of office of union representatives in the organisation are matters for the union concerned. Typically, they are elected for two to five years.

 

Works council members and works trustees can be set up, provided at least 10% of employees request this. They are elected by secret ballot of the whole workforce with all employees with at least three months’ service entitled to vote. All employees aged over 18 who are “of good character” can stand, provided they have at least three months’ service and are not closely connected to the employer. The elections are on the basis of lists, which must be proposed by at least 10% of the employees or a trade union present at the workplace. The candidates with the largest number of votes are elected, although at least 30% of the potential electors must participate in the vote for it to be valid.

 

Members of the works council or works trustees serve for four years.

 

Protection against dismissal

 

Employee representatives, whether they are part of a local union organisation, members of a works council works council or a works trustee, must not be disadvantaged or penalised by the employer for the performance of their duties.

 

During their term of office and for six months afterwards, their dismissal is illegal without the prior consent of the employee representatives concerned – local union or works council – or a decision of the court.

 

Time off and other resources

 

Employee representatives have rights to paid time off – union representatives to perform trade union activities and works council members (or the works trustee) to undertake their works council duties. The amount can be agreed between the employer and the representatives, but if there is no agreement, the representatives are entitled to a total of 15 minutes per month per employee. This total is then divided between all the employee representatives, both those from the union and the works council, if they are both present. If the employee representatives cannot agree on the distribution of the time off, they can call on an arbitrator to decide. The union decides how the time off should be distributed between the union representatives, and the works council decides how it should be distributed between works council members. It is possible for time off not used to be taken as monetary compensation by the union or works council if there is an agreement to this effect.

 

The employer has the right to check whether the time off is being used for the purpose for which it was provided.

 

Employers should also provide employee representatives with “an adequate range of rooms with the necessary equipment” free of charge. The employer pays for the equipment’s maintenance and its operation.  The 2013 survey of working conditions, found that, in companies and organisations where a union was present, the trade union organisation was overwhelmingly based on the premises of the employer (86.2%), and in more than a third of cases (36.6%) the rent was paid by the employer. These percentages have been rising in recent years, leading the survey to conclude that “cooperation between employers and workers’ representatives has become increasingly close in the past three years”.[3]

 

Training rights

 

Employee representatives have no specific rights to training to carry out their duties. This applies both to trade union members and to members of the works council and the works trustee.

Representation at group level

 

This is only provided through union structures for union representatives. There is no group structure for works councils.

 

[1] Informačný system o pracovných podmienkach v roku 2013: Pravidelné ročné výberové zisťovanie, Table Z2, MPSVR SR 2013

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

[3] Informačný system o pracovných podmienkach v roku 2013: Pravidelné ročné výberové zisťovanie, Table Z3, MPSVR SR 2013  

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.