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Cooperation Ombudsman starts work

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The act establishing the post of Cooperation Ombudsman was drafted by a tripartite working group and came into force in Finland on 1 July 2010. The Cooperation Ombudsman oversees compliance with legislation on workplace cooperation and other arrangements concerning industrial democracy in the private sector. Lawyer Helena Lamponen of the Akava-affiliated Central Union for Special Branches (Akavan Erityisalat) has been appointed the first Cooperation Ombudsman.

Lawyer Helena Lamponen has been appointed as Finland’s first Cooperation Ombudsman, starting work in September 2010. She is a member of the Central Union for Special Branches within Akava (Akavan Erityisalat), affiliated to the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff (AKAVA). The Cooperation Ombudsman, who is appointed for a five-year period, oversees compliance with legislation on workplace cooperation and other arrangements concerning industrial democracy.

The act establishing the post of Cooperation Ombudsman was drafted by a tripartite working group and came into force on 1 July 2010. Before this arrangement was set up, surveillance of the cooperation and legislation on employee involvement or participation was part of the routine work of the Ministry of Employment and the Economy (Työ-ja elinkeinoministeriö). The purpose of the new legislation is to ensure independent monitoring and to institute separate proceedings for surveillance.

The Cooperation Ombudsman will work with the Ministry of Employment and the Economy to supervise compliance with the following legislation:

  • Act on Cooperation within Enterprises (334/2007);
  • Act on Cooperation within Finnish and Community-wide Groups of Enterprises (335/2007);
  • Act on Personnel Representation in the Administration of Enterprises (725/1990);
  • Act on Employee Involvement in European Companies and in European Cooperative Societies (758/2004);
  • Act on Personnel Funds (814/1989).

The Act on Cooperation within Enterprises and the Act on Personnel Representation in the Administration of Enterprises are the main pieces of legislation governing the information and consultation of employees, and employee representation and participation.

The revised Act on Cooperation within Enterprises came into force on 1 July 2007 and, after a six-month transition period, applied to private sector companies with more than 20 employees (FI0801029I). The area of supervision thus covers about 8,000 companies and more than 800,000 employees, about a third of the entire Finnish workforce. The act does not apply to the public sector, which has its own similar rules on cooperation between employers and employees.

Duties of Cooperation Ombudsman

As well as supervising compliance with the legislation, the duties of the Cooperation Ombudsman are to:

  • promote and improve cooperation between employers and employees, and the implementation of other employee involvement systems;
  • monitor how well the objectives of the acts listed above are being achieved;
  • advise on implementation of these acts;
  • request an opinion on whether the Act on Cooperation within Enterprises or the Act on Cooperation within Finnish and Community-wide Groups of Enterprises should be applied to an undertaking or group of undertakings;
  • ensure the activities and administration of employee funds comply with the Act on Personnel Funds and relevant by-laws;
  • maintain a register of employee funds, receiving and examining notifications and other documents pertaining to the funds.

Rights and obligations of Cooperation Ombudsman

Confidentiality obligations notwithstanding, the Cooperation Ombudsman has the right to obtain from the employer the information and documents necessary for supervising legal compliance. This should be free of charge and be provided within a reasonable time limit.

The Cooperation Ombudsman, or a designated official, has the right to inspect an enterprise in order to carry out their supervisory duties. Employer and employee representatives should be given notice of the inspection.

The Cooperation Ombudsman has right to demand that:

  • corrective action is taken when employees are not properly informed or consulted, and that arrangements are made for full employee representation and participation;
  • a company sets up appropriate personnel plans and educational objectives – if they do not, the Ombudsman may impose a fine.

The Cooperation Ombudsman will be allowed to speak at preliminary hearings and be given an opportunity by the public prosecutor to make a statement before the consideration of charges is completed. The Cooperation Ombudsman has the right to be present in court when the case is heard and to appeal.

Challenge of improving cooperation in companies

Helena Lamponen has worked for the Central Union for Special Branches within Akava since 1989. She served as a common representative and legal secretary for the trade union confederations on the tripartite working group dealing with the revision of the Act on Cooperation.

Ms Lamponen faces three main challenges in her new office. The first task is to improve the general knowledge of legislation relating to cooperation and employee involvement in companies.

The second is to clarify the concept of cooperation within enterprises in such a way that real cooperation is achieved instead of the traditional approach which mainly means negotiations before collective dismissals. Industrial relations research shows that this has created a negative image among employees of the concept of employee–employer cooperation.

For the third task, Ms Lamponen has emphasised that cooperation between employers and employees at the workplace level should lead to improved employee skills and qualifications, enhancing company success.

At the core of these three tasks lies the issue of the social partners’ understanding of the concept of cooperation. Negotiations should be based on timely provision of comprehensive information on the state of the company and its plans. Negotiations are interactive in character and should be carried out in the spirit of cooperation in order to obtain consensus.

As part of the improvement of the skills and qualifications structure within a company, an important ingredient is the preparation and implementation of personnel plans and training objectives. Projected changes in the operation of the company should be taken into account and the plans prepared in negotiation with employees. The purpose of the plans is to maintain and improve the occupational skills of the employees in every personnel group. The plans should take into account:

  • the specific needs of ageing employees;
  • measures and opportunities needed to help employees to balance work and family life;
  • how they can be put into practice.

Commentary

The revised Act on Cooperation within Enterprises came into force in 2007, but actual cooperation during the organisational restructuring of companies has been quite frictional. The appointment of the Cooperation Ombudsman is an important signal that company-level cooperation and employee participation in restructuring is important. The principal task of the Cooperation Ombudsman is to provide guidelines for the application of the legislation, acting as a new kind of consultant for companies and employees who find themselves in conflict over collective dismissals and other restructuring-related issues.

Pertti Jokivuori, University of Jyväskylä

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