Workers’ rights remain sacrosanct in a lockdown From the very beginning of the pandemic, every multinational was confronted with a need to address the potential and/or actual impact of the disease and to implement distancing measures across all their sites around the globe. The measures introduced to contain the spread of Covid-19 impacted all areas of economic activity: retail, manufacturing, public services, transport, energy and utilities, construction, agriculture, and culture, to name just a few. Accordingly, employee representatives at all levels of the company also needed to address the measures proposed to mitigate these impacts: local employee representatives and trade unions, health and safety representatives, board-level employee representatives, and collective bargaining actors. In European-scale companies, European Works Councils and SE-Works Councils also had key roles to play in addressing the cross-border implications of measures enacted to try to stem the spread of Covid-19. This section will explore the ways in which the kinds of measures enacted by companies in response to the pandemic were (or should have been) subject to information, consultation and negotiation requirements. Not one of these processes is complete by itself: different institutions of employee representation address different aspects, and in multinational companies, the European Works Council has the responsibility and competence to address the transnational dimensions of these policies and responses.
The pandemic changed everything at once
Figure 6.4 depicts some of the many interrelated issues that were thrown up by the pandemic and companies’ responses to it. In the initial phase of the pandemic, sites started to be locked down in an effort to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. As a result of the closely interlocked supply chains within and across companies, in the manufacturing sector in particular, there were knock-on effects which were not immediately related to health measures: some sites had to halt their activities simply because their suppliers had been forced to close down. Essential services such as utilities and transport, both in the public and in the private sectors, had to find a way to continue to function despite the pandemic. Working from home surged in those sectors whose activities made it possible. In other sectors, such as healthcare and logistics, workloads increased exponentially (for more details on the impact of Covid-19 on working conditions in the health sector, see Chapter 5). Protecting the health of these essential workers throughout the lockdown was an overriding concern, particularly in the health and public transport sectors. Once the economies started reopening, it then became a priority to ensure the safety of workers in other sectors, such as hospitality and retail. Companies, employee representatives and unions needed to manage a sudden surge in working from home, and to engage with the different national regimes of short-time work or technical unemployment schemes. As economic activity tentatively resumed, companies then had to address the labour law and health and safety concerns of bringing their employees back to work, which in many cases also raised issues of whether such returns to work were voluntary or obligatory (ETUC 2020). Finally, companies began to try to manage their recovery, by initiating new restructuring plans or by accelerating plans that had already been in development prior to the pandemic (Kirton-Darling and Barthès 2020) (Eurofound 2020b). Where these measures had to be taken across different national sites of European multinationals, the need to accommodate sometimes significant differences in national labour law and social security regimes added additional layers and challenges to an already complex process. The task of addressing these comprehensively and coherently fell not only to management, but also to employee representatives and their unions.
Every piece of the complex machinery of multi-level workers’ participation has its place
As illustrated in Figure 6.4, company-level responses to the Covid-19 crisis engage all levels of workers’ participation institutions. Workplace health and safety representatives are particularly front and centre in addressing the challenges and risks to workers created by the pandemic (see also the next page). At the local or workplace level, it is the local employee representation bodies, such as works councils or trade unions, which are to be informed and consulted by employers and which engage in negotiations about the ways in which the company’s Covid-19 measures are to be implemented. Boardlevel employee representatives, where these exist, also have a key role to play in ensuring that the needs and interests of the workforce are taken into account at the top echelons of the company’s decision-making structures when company-wide strategic decisions regarding the response to the pandemic are made. Within European-scale companies, all these adaptations made to mitigate the growing crisis must take place simultaneously at all levels, increasing the need to coordinate across them. This is where the transnational level of interest representation within European Works Councils, SE-Works Councils, and in many cases at the board level have a crucial role to play. This transnational level must essentially function as a bridge between national employee representations, so that the information and consultation about company responses to the Covid19 crisis can take place across borders and at national level, depending on where decisions are being made and where they are being implemented. The European Trade Union Federations (ETUFs), which are the relevant European sectoral organisations, were able to draw upon a long history of support to their members active at the transnational level in EWCs and SE-WCs. Working together, the ETUFs compiled information briefings and advice to European Works Councils on how to address the challenges of the pandemic. The ETUC and the ETUFs wrote to Commissioner Schmitt, insisting that the pandemic meant that workers’ involvement rights needed to be strengthened and enforced more urgently than ever (ETUC et al 2020). Collective bargaining, conducted primarily at the local, regional or national levels, rounds out the picture by securing collectively agreed frameworks and solutions. The modalities of short-time work (see Chapter 2), for example, were laid down in collective agreements in many countries. (For an overview of the European legal framework for workers’ rights to information, consultation and board-level participation, see ETUI and ETUC 2017: 55.) In sum, the response to the effects of Covid-19 in the world of work did not take place in a vacuum, but through an interactive multi-level system which seeks to get all the right people around the table to play their respective roles in social dialogue, information and consultation, negotiation and collective bargaining. Data on EWCs and SE-WCs also clearly shows that where trade union support is present, employee representation works more efficiently (De Spiegelaere and Jagodziński 2019). It is too soon to tell how well this worked in practice. Initial evidence suggests a wide variety of responses: local and national-level employee representatives, health and safety representatives and trade unions seem to have played the roles clearly ascribed to tthem in the national context. At the European level, however, things were less predictable: some EWCs were closely informed and even consulted about company-wide measures adopted, while others played no role whatsoever.