No agreement on extending worker representation

A public committee established to examine industrial democracy in Norway presented its report in March 2010. It concluded that current arrangements for codetermination in the workplace enjoy broad support in Norway. However, there is some disagreement between labour market parties about whether current provisions should be extended to include smaller companies and groups of companies, and on the rights and responsibilities of safety officers and working environment committees.

In March 2010, a public committee set up to review the state of industrial democracy in Norway presented its recommendations in the form of a comprehensive report (in Norwegian) (NOU 2010: 1). The recommendations show that there is a general consensus about the importance of the present arrangements for codetermination and participation in Norwegian working life. The social partner organisations however disagree on issues such as that of extending the current provisions to smaller companies, groups of companies and/or on the extension of rights and responsibilities held by safety officers and working environment committees.

Background

The committee was set up in February 2009 to map developments in the various legal codetermination arrangements that exist in workplaces in Norway, to consider how these arrangements function and assess the need for changes and further development. Most committee members were representatives of employee or employer organisations; others were researchers.

Committee’s conclusions

The committee’s report provides a comprehensive description of existing arrangements for codetermination and worker participation, including the historical development and background of these arrangements. It also gives a detailed description of how the current system works. The committee concludes that there are great variations in how participation and codetermination is practised across the labour market, but that the existing arrangements seem to enjoy a large degree of legitimacy among all parties. The committee, therefore, assumes that there is broad support for existing arrangements and, as such, it is only a matter of developing and improving on them. The committee considered two aspects in particular; representation on corporate decision-making bodies and the role and responsibility of safety officers and working environment committees.

Disagreement over employee representation on company boards

In companies that employ more than 30 people, employees currently have a right to elect representatives to the board if a majority of those employed wish to do so. The committee is divided on whether or not to lower the threshold for eligible companies. A majority favour lowering the minimum requirement of 30 employees (mainly committee members from the employees’ side), while a minority, consisting of representatives from the employers’ side, want to see the current threshold maintained. There is further disagreement about whether to keep current provisions that require at least half the workforce in any company or enterprise to seek representation on the company board. While the employers want to retain the current arrangement, the representatives of the employee organisations believe companies with more than 30 employees should be obliged to elect employee representatives to the company board.

Safety officers and working environment committees

The other important area in which the committee is considering changes is related to safety officers and working environment committees. Two issues in particular were discussed.

  • The thresholds at which a company is required to set up a working environment committee and to have safety officers are considered by a majority – mostly employers – to be adequate. The minority, however, including all of the representatives of the employee side, wants to lower the threshold at which a company may choose to have a different arrangement than to elect a safety officer (this threshold is currently set at 10 employees); this group would also like to see the threshold at which a company is obliged to have a working environment committee reduced from 50 to 20 employees.
  • The committee also considered the extent to which safety officers and working environment committees should be given a greater role regarding the external environment such as climate and environmental change. The majority, consisting of representatives of the employer side and all the neutral members, argued against such a development, partly because it might take attention away from what must be the primary focus of a company’s health and safety strategy, the work environment. Other committee members pointed to the challenges to the workplace and individual enterprises posed by external issues such as climate change, and argued in favour of incorporating such issues on the codetermination and participation agenda.

Commentary

The committee’s recommendations show that the current arrangements for participation and representation receive great support among both employee and employer organisations in Norwegian working life. Both sides are also in favour of voluntary measures that may encourage greater use of existing arrangements by companies not covered at present, including improved training. Nonetheless, there seems to be unrelenting disagreement over virtually every proposal involving an extension of the arrangement for representation or an increase in the responsibilities of health officers. So far, it is not known whether the government intends to follow up the committee’s work with changes to the legal framework in the disputed areas.

Kristine Nergaard, Fafo

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