Workplace representation in Croatia is provided both through trade unions and works councils, although if no works council has been set up the union representative can take on almost all its duties and responsibilities. This happens reasonably frequently.
Unions are free to operate at the workplace and, according to the Labour Act, they have “the right to promote the rights and interests of trade union members in respect of their relations with the employer”. This can be done either through external union officials or through union representatives who are also employees of the organisation. In practice, as only 10 individuals are required to set up a union and because there are a large number of unions, in many cases union representation will be through a union or unions, all of whose members work for the same employer. In other cases the union members will belong to a larger union with members spread across several employers, or even the whole country.
In companies and other organisations with at least 20 employees (bodies which are part of the state administration are an exception), the Labour Act states that the employees have the right to be represented through a works council. Its role is that it “protects and promotes the interests of employees”. In practice, unions, which have the right to nominate candidates, are key in initiating the process of setting up a works council.
If no works council has been set up, its rights and duties (other than the choice of an individual to be a representative at board level – see below) are taken on by a union representative working at the company. If there are several unions present in the workplace and they cannot reach agreement as to which union representative should exercise these rights, the choice is made through an election, following the same rules as apply for the election of works council members (see below).
There are no national official statistics on the proportion of workplaces that have either union representation and/or works councils. However, a survey of 530 companies with more than 20 employees, published in 2010, found that 45% had works councils. Looking at trends, at least one of the unions argues that workplace representation is moving away from works councils towards the situation where works council rights are exercised by a union representative. A study in 2007 found that “taking over the functions of works council by a trade union is common”.
There are also employee safety representatives who must be elected once there are 20 employees, or even fewer if there are significant health and safety risks.
Figures from Eurofound’s 2013 European Company Survey show that 23% 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 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, 86% have some form of employee representation.
Numbers and structure
The numbers and structure of the trade union body at the workplace are a matter for the rules of the trade union and, as already noted, there may be more than one union present.
However, the law places a limit on the number of trade union representatives in the workforce who have protection against dismissal (see section on protection). Even in the smallest workplaces at least one union representative always has protection and the number rises as the workplace increases in size. The number of union representatives protected is exactly the same as the number of works council members elected (see below). The employer should be informed about the appointment of the union representative or representatives, whether they are part of the workforce or external union officials.
The size of the works council, which is a purely employee body, is set out in the Labour Act, and it increases with the number employed, as follows:
Number of employees
Number of works council members
20 to 75
76 to 250
251 to 500
501 to 750
751 to 1,000
There are then an additional two members for every further 1,000 employees. A works council can be established either at the level of an individual organisational unit (a workplace) or by bringing together several organisational units.
The Labour Act does not define in detail which workers count towards these thresholds, stating only, in Article 145, that “all workers of an employer shall have the right to elect and be elected”. The exceptions are members of management and supervisory bodies (other than workers’ representatives) and their immediate family members, as well as the chief executive or other similar senior figure.
Members of trade unions, with members in the company or organisation concerned, may be present at works council meetings, but they have no right to participate in taking decisions. The works council should, however, inform employees and the union about its work and receive their initiatives; it should also cooperate with all the unions present in the workplace.
The works council sets its own rules of procedure, including how often it meets. However, the employer should provide the works council with information at least every three months (see below).
Task and rights
Unions in the workplace have the right to “promote the rights and interests of trade union members”. The employer is required by law to make it possible for trade union representatives to exercise their rights and to provide them with the information necessary to exercise them.
In practice, the unions’ main area of activity at the workplace is collective bargaining, unless, as is possible, there is no works council and the union has taken on its role.
The basic role of the works council, according to the Labour Act, is that it “protects and promotes the interests of the employees … by providing advice, participating in decision making and negotiating with the employer … about the issues which are important for the employees”. The works council should not become involved in industrial action.
The employer must inform the works council at least every three months about:
- the situation of the business and work organisation;
- the expected development of the business and the effects of this on the employees;
- trends and changes in pay;
- the extent and reasons for overtime working;
- the number and category of employees, the structure of employment and overall employment policy;
- health and safety and measures taken to improve working conditions; and
- other issues of importance for the economic and social position of employees.
The employer must consult with the works council before taking decisions which will have a significant impact on employees. These include decisions on:
- the adoption of “employment rules” which regulate issues such as pay, work organisation and issues such as sexual harassment, except where these issues are already covered by a collective agreement. Employee rules are obligatory in all companies or organisations with more than 20 employees;
- the development of employment policy, including relocation and dismissals;
- the impact of the transfer of employment to a new employer;
- measures linked to the protection of health and safety at work;
- the introduction of new technology and changes in work organisation and methods;
- annual leave plans;
- working hours schedules;
- night work;
- payments for employees’ inventions and suggestions; and
- redundancy social plans.
The information in respect of these issues must be provided to the works council “in due time” and in such a way as to allow the works council to make comments which have a “material impact on decision-making”. The works council must provide its reasoned response to the employer within eight days.
The works council can also reach agreements with the employer on these and other matters, which are then legally binding. However, these agreements cannot cover pay, working time or other issues normally covered by collective agreements, unless this is specifically permitted by the signatories of the collective agreement.
There are special rules relating to dismissals where, because of the behaviour of the employee, the employer considers it justified to dismiss the employee without complying with the agreed notice period.
In such cases, where the employer is dismissing the employee with what is known as “extraordinary notice”, the works council has a right to challenge the employer’s decision within five days. Provided the individual employee has also begun a legal action, he or she must be reinstated until the court has reached a conclusion on the merits of the case. Employers may ask the court to release them from this obligation, if they consider that it is clearly unjustified, but they must pay the employee wage compensation until the case is settled.
There are also some decisions which can only be taken with the agreement of the works council, although on all the topics covered by this obligation, a decision by the court can replace the works council’s agreement. The employer must ask the court to take a decision within 15 days of the works council’s refusal to give its consent, and the court must reach a verdict within 30 days of receiving the request.
The decisions in this category are:
- the dismissal of works council members or candidates, as well as the dismissal of the employee representative on the supervisory board (see section on board level representation);
- the dismissal of disabled workers;
- the dismissal of workers aged over 60;
- the inclusion of pregnant employees in redundancy schemes;
- collecting data about employees and sending it to a third party; and
- the appointment of an individual controlling the use of data and its delivery to third parties.
The rights of the works council can also be extended through an agreement between the works council and the employer or by a collective agreement signed with the union or unions.
Election and term of office
Union representatives are chosen in line with the rules of the union concerned.
Works council members are elected by the employees in a ballot, which is supervised by an electoral committee of at least three members, appointed by the bodies – unions or groups of employees – who have nominated candidates. Candidates may be nominated, either by unions who have members at the workplace, or by a group of employees representing at least 20% (10% before 2014) of the workforce.
There is no service requirement to be a candidate, and almost all employees may stand for office. The exceptions are: members of management and supervisory bodies (other than workers’ representatives) and their immediate family members, as well as the chief executive or other similar senior figure. Elections are not valid unless at least one third of the employees have voted.
Works councils are elected every four years (three years before 2014) and the elections generally take place in March.
Protection against dismissal
In the legislation, both union representatives and works council members enjoy protection against dismissal or unfavourable treatment.
For trade unionists, there is a general prohibition of dismissal or unfavourable treatment by the employer on the grounds of trade union membership or participation in trade union activities, whether in work or outside it.
In addition, trade union representatives who are employed in the organisation may not be dismissed or placed in a less favourable position in other ways, unless the union agrees to this, or, where the union does not agree, a court permits it. This protection applies both during their period of office and for six months afterwards. However, the number of trade union representatives protected in this way is limited. In all workplaces at least one trade union representative benefits from this protection, and the number goes up with the size of the workforce in line with the number of works council members elected – three in workplaces with 76 to 250 employees, five where there are 251 to 500 employees, and so on (see section on numbers and structure).
On works councils, the legislation states that the employer “must neither favour nor disfavour members of the works council”. In addition, as with union representatives, works council members or candidates for the works council can only be dismissed with the agreement of the works council, or, where this is refused, following a decision of the court.
Time off and other resources
There are no specific rights to paid time off for union representatives in the workplace, unless they are taking on the role of the works council, where the works council rights apply. Where this is not the case, the law only states that the employer must make it possible for union representatives to exercise their right to protect and promote the interests of trade union members in the workplace in a “timely” and “effective” way.
The time off and other rights of works council members in contrast are set out in the Labour Act. This states that each member of the works council has a right to six hours paid time off a week, and this entitlement may be transferred between individual members. Where the total amount of time off permits it, the president or another member of the works council may be freed entirely from normal duties in order to carry out work council functions on a full-time basis. He or she has an explicit right to return to their previous work, or, if this no longer exists, another appropriate job at the end of their period of office.
The employer must also provide the works council with the necessary premises, personnel, resources and other working conditions and there is an overall requirement that the employer should cover “other costs incurred as a result of the works council’s activities” in accordance with the terms of the applicable legislation.
The working conditions of the works council are to be regulated in an agreement between the works council and the employer.
The works council may also make use of experts and, provided there is an agreement with the employer, the employer will pay.
The Labour Act states specifically that “the employer must permit members of the works council to undergo training necessary for work in the council”.
 See Implementacija pravne stečevine Europske unije i utjecaj na hrvatsko zakonodavstvo i praksu u području sudjelovanja radnika (The implementation of the acquis communautaire and the impact on the Croatian legislation and practice in the area of workers participation), by H Horak and K Dumančić, Roundtable: The Role of unions in modern society, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Zagreb, November 2012
 See Industrijski odnosi u Hrvatskoj: društvena integracija ili tržišni sukob (Industrial relations in Croatia: social integration or market conflict) by Dragan Bagić, 2010 quoted in Annual Review on Labour Relations and Social Dialogue in South East Europe: Croatia 2012 by Ana Milićević Pezeli, 2013, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
 See Annual Review on Labour Relations and Social Dialogue in South East Europe: Croatia 2012 by Ana Milićević Pezeli, 2013, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
 Capacity building for social dialogue at sectoral and company level: Croatia, Željko Potočnjak and Viktor Gotovac, 2007, European Foundation for the Improvement of Working and Living Conditions
 Eurofound (2015), Third European Company Survey – Overview report: Workplace practices – Patterns, performance and well-being, Figures for Table 44