Study examines state of corporate democracy

Arrangements that ensure worker participation and co-determination in Norwegian workplaces have received substantial support. This is one of the conclusions of a new report by Fafo, published in August 2009, which was conducted among 3,300 employees in companies with 10 or more employees. Although workers’ awareness of the various schemes is low, the arrangements seem to function properly regardless of whether or not they are formally established.

About the study

A report (in Norwegian, 1.86Mb PDF) examining the state of industrial democracy in Norway was recently published by the independent and multidisciplinary research foundation Fafo. The report, which was released in August 2009, explores the issues of corporate democracy, co-determination, participation and influence in 2009. The findings are based on a survey conducted among 3,300 employees in Norway in companies with 10 or more employees. Additional questions were posed to employees who were elected representatives or had management responsibilities. The survey included questions relating to individual employees’ influence over their own work situation, as well as questions on the formal arrangements enabling collective influence at the workplace. In addition to the survey, the researchers also interviewed 30 leaders and 30 employee representatives or safety deputies, as well as representatives of the social partner organisations. The study covers both the public and private sectors.

Institutionalised corporate democracy

The collectively-based system of cooperation in Norwegian working life enjoys substantial support and a high degree of acceptance among ordinary workers as well as employees in managerial positions. A large majority of respondents in the survey believe that it is important to allow elected representatives to have a major influence on decision-making in the company. However, the survey also shows that a comparatively lower proportion of employees in management positions (60%) are somewhat less concerned about this than the share of ordinary staff (74%). Moreover, a higher proportion of unionised workers (77%) are more concerned about the influence of trade union representatives than the corresponding share of non-unionised workers (58%).

Corporate democracy and co-determination are not only accepted, but are also seen as an intrinsic precondition for the proper functioning of Norwegian workplaces. The survey’s researchers conclude that while anchoring the system of corporate cooperation in law and collective agreements was of great importance in the beginning, established practice now seems to override the formal regulations in this area. Whether or not an issue is being discussed or treated in a statutory or agreement based body is of less significance. The survey also shows that it is not formal meetings that dominate the contact between elected representatives and management: both parties claim to have frequent contact of a more informal nature – for example, through email, telephone calls and informal meetings. Formal roundtable meetings are less frequent.

Established arrangements also seem to have a contagious effect on non-unionised companies. In the qualitative interviews, it was revealed that several non-unionised companies had established in-house trade union branches as well as appointing elected worker representatives. A total of one out of three companies claim to carry out collective bargaining over wages. Nonetheless, the non-unionised businesses that are covered by this study probably belong to the regulated and formal part of the labour market. Therefore, these findings are hardly representative of the entire non-unionised labour market.

Areas of cooperation

The survey also considers the issues being treated in the formal bodies for employee participation, distinguishing between the statutory working environment committees (Arbeidsmiljøutvalget, AMU) and other organs for social partner cooperation. The main conclusion is that these bodies are forums concerned with a wide range of matters affecting companies and their employees. The issue of sickness absenteeism featured most frequently on the respondents’ cooperative agenda. Other recurrent issues on the agenda of these committees are questions relating to the physical and psychosocial work environment, injuries and health-related incidents, restructuring, working time arrangements, budgetary matters and development needs.

Influence over work situation

In the survey, employees were also asked how much influence they felt that they had over their work situation. On a scale of one to five – where five constituted a major influence – the average score amounted to 4.4 among the respondents. The survey’s authors considered this to be a very high score. The score for influence over work organisation totalled 3.5, which is also considered favourably. However, the respondents perceived influence over business strategies, profitability requirements and the environment to be far lower, with the average score amounting to only 2.6. This low score may be attributed to the fact that these areas are largely the responsibility of management. In such cases, influence occurs in the first instance through local trade unions and employee representatives, and not through individual participation and direct involvement.

Kristin Alsos, Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science

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