Workplace employee representation plays a key role in defending and advancing the interests of employees where they work. The structures vary across Europe, including both representation through local union bodies and through works councils – or similar structures elected by all employees. The most common arrangement is that the law provides for both union and works council or works council-type structures, but in five there are only works councils and in eight, workplace representation is essentially through the unions. There are also substantial variations in terms of the tasks and rights of workplace representatives, how they are chosen, the protection they have and the time off, training and other resources at their disposal.

There are important differences in the formal structures for employee representation at the workplace in the 30 states covered, and these extend to all aspects of the structures. This means that, although it is possible to split the states into different groupings, depending on their representation systems, these divisions are not absolute, and states can combine elements of the different groupings.

In five states – Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland– the main workplace representation is through works councils (employee delegation in Luxembourg and employee representation in Switzerland), elected by all employees, and the law makes no provision for workplace structures for unions. In 13 others – Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain – the law provides for both union and works council or works council-type structures. These bodies can co-exist in the same workplace, although, in Lithuania, if more third a third of the workforce are union members a works council is not set up and the union takes on its duties. There are major differences between the countries in this group, both in terms of the role that unions play where there are works councils, and the extent to which the two representative structures are present. In some countries works councils are rare. In a further four states – Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Romania – the law provides for elected employee representatives. Their powers are generally less clearly defined than is the case for most works councils, and there are fewer rules on the number to be elected. In Romania works councils can only be elected if there is no representative union in the workplace. In the remaining eight states – Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Norway, Sweden and the UK – workplace representation is essentially through the unions, although there in some countries there are also other structures in some workplaces.

The precise tasks and rights of workplace representatives vary widely. The four main areas are:

  • being informed about the progress of the business (as indicated by the financial results or the company’s market share);
  • being informed about employment issues and consulted about the employer’s plans for the future especially where changes affect workers (such as the introduction of new working methods or restructuring);
  • representing employees’ individual concerns when they face problems with the employer (such as in dismissals and disciplinary procedures); and
  • collective bargaining.

In addition, in some countries, workplace representatives are not just consulted about the employer’s plans but must agree to them before they go ahead, although almost always the refusal of workplace representatives to accept the plans can be overturned by a decision of an arbitration panel or a court or clauses in a collective agreement.

The allocation of these tasks between works council-type bodies and workplace union representatives, where both exist, differs between countries, but in general, works council-type bodies deal with information and consultation, while collective bargaining is in the hands of unions. (The main exception is Spain, where works councils, which are heavily unionised bodies, undertake collective bargaining.) Unions and works councils both represent employees’ individual concerns, although. where both exist, this task seems more frequently to fall to unions. hile works councils and other similar bodies are elected by all employees, their members can often be nominated by unions, and, in a few countries, unions have sole or priority nominating rights. Members normally serve for either three or four years, but there are some cases where the period of office is five years and some where it is just two.

Further information about the size of the representative body, the threshold at which it must be elected, its rights to time off training, and other resources, as well as protection against dismissal and the possibility of establishing group-level employee representation is provided in the national reports.

Figure 1 shows workplace representation forms in the 27 EU Member States, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Figure 1: Workplace representation in the 27 EU Member States, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom