(The colloquial name Handelskammern is also used.) The bodies which make up the Austrian system of public-law representation of the interests of every natural and legal person licensed to carry on a business falling within the scope of their membership domain. Under the Economic Chambers Act (Handelskammergesetz), which regulates their structure and functions, that domain includes the following sectors of the economy: manufacturing, commerce, banking and insurance, transport and communications and tourism, i.e. essentially all areas of business with the exception of agriculture, the liberal professions and the non-trading public sector.
In 1997 the Economic Chambers had a combined total membership of 355, 364. In interpreting this figure it has to be borne in mind that membership is based on the obligatory acquisition of a formal operating licence (Gewerbeberechtigung), but that not all those holding a licence make use of it: if “sleeping” members are excluded, in 1997 the total active membership was 276, 410. Also, in some cases the subject of the licences, as defined by Austrian trade law, is narrower than the nature of the business activity carried on by an enterprise, which therefore has more than one licence. When the membership figure is adjusted to allow for this multiple licensing, the number of member enterprises belonging to the Economic Chambers in 1997 totalled 251, 410. Their 2.082 million employees represent 68.1% of all employees in Austria.
The Economic Chambers are organized on the basis of a two-dimensional, matrix-like system. One dimension mirrors Austria's geographical subdivision, with a Land-level Chamber for each Land and, at federal level, the Economic Chamber of Austria (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, or WKÖ) as the peak organization. The second dimension focuses on the sectoral and subsectoral differentiation of the Chambers' membership domain. Within the WKÖ there are six federal sectoral sections (Bundessektionen) for: small-scale craft production; manufacturing industry; commerce; finance, banking and insurance; transport and communications; and tourism. Each of these sections is in turn divided according to subsectors of activity into what are called federal sectoral subunits (Fachverbände). Within each of the individual Land-level Chambers there is a similar sectoral and subsectoral differentiation, with six Land-level sectoral sections (Landessektionen) divided into Land-level sectoral subunits (Landesfachorganisationen) corresponding to those at federal level. In all, the system comprises more than 130 federal sectoral subunits and more than 1200 Land-level sectoral subunits.
The tasks performed by the Economic Chambers cover a broad spectrum, including the representation of members' interests in dealings with government bodies and collaboration in public regulatory functions. They are also invested by law with the capacity to conclude collective agreements: on the employers' side, some 95% of all collective agreements are in practice concluded by the Economic Chambers (in the overwhelming majority of cases by their sectoral subunits). In addition, they provide a wide range of advisory, further-training and service facilities for their members. Their Business Promotion Institute (Wirtschaftsförderungsinstitut) is one of Austria's largest further-training institutions. The WKÖ's foreign trade offices represent another important facility: worldwide there are some 90 such offices located in Austria's major trading partner countries, which offer Austrian companies assistance with foreign business. This commitment to foreign trade matters underlines the fact that the Economic Chambers function not solely as employers' organizations but also as trade associations.
As one of the exclusive circle of social partners, the WKÖ is part of Austria's system of social partnership, and since almost all collective agreements are concluded on behalf of the employers' side under its umbrella it occupies a key position in that system.