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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.

 

Figures from Eurofound’s 2013 European Company Survey show that just 12% of establishments with at least 10 employees have some form of official employee representation, which may be either a union or a works council. This is well below the EU28 average of 32%. As elsewhere in Europe, larger organisations are much more likely to have such a structure than smaller ones. Among establishments with more than 250 employees, 65% have some form of employee representation.[1]

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, and these are set out in the Labour Code.

 

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 be informed on:

  • 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 be informed and consulted on:

  • the probable economic development of the company;
  • key working conditions concerns;
  • structural changes; rationalisation or organisational measures;
  • 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. Their consultation rights are also limited, covering just transfers, health and safety and the establishment of a European works council.

 

There are specific rules on consultation in relation to collective redundancies affecting significant numbers of employees, where the union and works council must be informed and consulted in advance, with the intention of reaching an agreement aimed at avoiding redundancies, if possible, and, if not, at mitigating their adverse impact on employees.

 

The union and the works council are also involved in drawing up the written schedule for taking leave, which, as the Labour Code states, “is only released with the prior consent of the trade union organisation and the works council”.

 

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 union should also be given details of the appointment of new employees.

 

The legislation states that the union must be consulted on

  • the company’s economic situation;
  • workload and the pace of work;
  • changes in work organisation;
  • systems of employee pay and appraisal;
  • training;
  • measures relating to childcare, care of disabled persons, improvements in occupational hygiene and measures relating to employees’ social and cultural needs; and
  • other measures which “relate to a larger number of employees”.

 

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.

 

There are two issues which must be agreed with the union, where it is present in the workplace. These are:

  • 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 level of pay during periods of short-time working (because of a fall in demand) can be either fixed through ab agreement with the union or through internal regulations.

 

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. There are no specific conditions which candidates must fulfil. As the legislation states, all employees employed by the employer are both “eligible to vote and be elected” (Labour Code Section 283(5)).

 

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.

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.

 

Training rights

 

Trade unionists are entitled to five days’ paid time off per year for union training, unless “serious operational reasons” prevent this.

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

L. Fulton (2020) National Industrial Relations, an update. Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.