BLER regulations in EEA

The regulatory picture of board-level employee representation has not changed much recently (Conchon 2015). Only one major change should be noted: as shown in Figure 4.15, Czechia has regained its place among the countries with widespread coverage of participation rights. A reform in 2012 removed the right of employees to be represented in jointstock companies, but it has been reintroduced from January 2017. Employees are now entitled to one third of the seats in supervisory boards in joint-stock companies with over 500 employees. Under the new regulations, however, joint-stock companies can choose their governance structure and may seek to avoid dualistic boards. Despite the absence of further regulatory changes concerning BLER rights, the issue has come to the fore of the political agenda for several actors. Debates on workers’ participation seem now more alive than seen since the 1970s. Indeed, the UK, Belgium and Italy, which traditionally lack board-level participation rights (Page 2011) have seen some developments in favour of the introduction of board-level employee representation.

In the UK, Theresa May announced in July 2016 her intention to involve employees and consumers in corporate governance. The TUC welcomed this initiative, expecting workers would get the right to sit and vote on company boards. In the end, the Green Paper on Corporate Governance Reform (November 2016) left stakeholders’ involvement as an empty shell. Rather than mandating the appointment of employee representatives to company boards, three options are proposed, which prioritise unilateral management initiative over binding rules: (i) introducing consultative stakeholder advisory panels; (ii) assigning a non-executive director the responsibility of watching over stakeholders’ interests; and (iii) strengthening companies’ annual reporting requirements. In Belgium, where unions and political parties have historically opposed workers’ participation in company boards (Van Gies and De Spiegelaere 2015), the debate may be reopened. The Socialist Party announced its support for a new form of private company with mandatory board-level employee representation. A concrete proposal should be defined by March 2017 after an internal reflection process: it would draw on full parity rules and a bicameral board structure in which one of the chambers fully represents employees’ interests (Ferreras 2012). Italy also witnessed some evolution in the debate on workers’ participation.

Italian unions have traditionally resisted employees’ board-level participation rights but recently the three main confederations jointly declared BLER to be ‘fundamental’ to a more balanced industrial democracy. Their position does however depart from the German model of co-determination, and stresses strictly different roles for management/capital and labour (CGIL, CISL and UIL 2016). The Spanish unions UGT and CCOO have also confirmed their support for workers’ board-level participation rights. During the crisis, corruption scandals in savings banks revealed insufficient transparency and control in the Spanish model of workers’ board-level representation. Stung by the damage caused to the reputation of trade unions and the near disappearance of BLER in Spain, close scrutiny and an internal debate led CCOO to declare a renewed interest in a BLER system resembling the German one (CCOO 2013 and 2016). For its part, the ETUC has called for EU standard rules on articulated information, consultation and BLER rights in European company boards, building upon its 2014 resolution (ETUC 2016). Despite important discrepancies, these positions reveal a converging agenda in Europe in which workers’ board-level participation rights are a political priority.