Thematic feature - works councils and other workplace employee representation and participation structures

This article examines the Belgian situation, as of September 2003, with regard to works councils and similar workplace employee representation and participation structures. It looks at the regulatory framework, statistical data, evidence on practice and the views of the social partners.

The issue of works councils and similar workplace employee representation and participation structures is topical at present, with the EU Member States required to implement the recent Directive (2002/14/EC) establishing a general framework for informing and consulting employees in the European Community (EU0204207F) by March 2005 (though countries which currently have no 'general, permanent and statutory' system of information and consultation or employee representation may phase in the Directive's application to smaller firms up until 2008). The Directive applies to undertakings with at least 50 employees or establishments with at least 20 employees (the choice is left to the Member States). It provides employees with the following rights to information and consultation:

  • information on the recent and probable development of the undertaking's or the establishment's activities and economic situation;
  • information and consultation on the situation, structure and probable development of employment within the undertaking and on any anticipatory measures envisaged, in particular where there is a threat to employment; and
  • information and consultation, with a view to reaching an agreement, on decisions likely to lead to substantial changes in work organisation or in contractual relations.

Information and consultation arrangements set out in agreements between management and labour, including at undertaking or establishment level, may differ from those laid down in the Directive.

While the Directive does not stipulate that information and consultation must be provided through any particular channel or structure, it defines such information and consultation as taking place between the employer and the employee representatives provided for by national laws and/or practices. It is these representatives, who in most EU Member States sit on standing 'works council'-type structures (and in many countries already enjoy all or most of the information and consultation rights laid down in the Directive) that are the focus of this article. The existence of workplace employee representation and participation structures, based on law or widespread collective agreements, is seen in some quarters as a distinctive and important feature of the (mainland) European industrial relations model. Indeed, the idea has been raised of using the coverage of such worker involvement arrangements as an indicator of 'quality' in industrial relations (as suggested, for example, by the European Commission’s June 2001 Communication on Employment and social policies: a framework for investing in quality).

In this context, in September 2003, the EIRO national centres in each EU Member State (plus Norway), were asked, in response to a questionnaire, to provide information about the current situation with regard to national (rather than European level) works councils and similar bodies - the regulatory framework, statistical data (or estimates where not available), evidence on practice and the views of the social partners. The Belgian responses are set out below (along with the questions asked).

Regulation

What is the legislative framework in your country concerning works councils and/or other workplace employee representation and participation structures? Please include here: definition; workforce-size threshold for establishment; composition/election; subjects for information, consultation and co-determination; conditions under which information, consultation and co-determination should take place (ie timing, methods, contents, level of representation, type of response by employees, form of interaction etc); meetings; confidentiality; protection of employees’ representatives. If there is no legislation on this issue in your country, please refer to widespread systems of works councils etc based on collective agreements.

The main forms of workplace employee participation and representation in Belgium are the works council (ondernemingsraad/conseil d'entreprise, OR/CE) and the committee for prevention and protection at the workplace (comité voor preventie en bescherming op het werk/comité pour la prévention et protection au travail, CPBW/CPPT) - formerly known as the workplace health and safety committee. The key items of legislation in this field are: the law of 20 September 1948 on organisation of the economy; national collective agreement no. 9 of 9 March 1972 on works councils concluded by the social partners on National Labour Council (Conseil National du Travail/Nationale Arbeidsraad, CNT/NAR) and made mandatory by the Royal Decree of 12 September 1972; the Royal Decree of 27 November 1973 on the regulation of the economic and financial information to be supplied to works councils; the law of 4 August 1996 relating to workers’ welfare in the performance of their duties; and the Royal Decree of 25 May 1999 relating to works councils and committees for prevention and protection at the workplace.

The works council is a joint, bipartite body made up of representatives elected by workers in the enterprise at 'social elections' and representatives appointed by the employer from among managerial staff (who may not outnumber the employees’ representatives). A works council must be established in all enterprises that normally employ an average of at least 100 workers, and must be renewed in all enterprises that established, or should have established, one at the previous elections, providing that they normally employ an average of at least 50 workers. Where the enterprise normally employs an average of under 100 workers, there is no need to elect works council members: their work is performed by union delegates elected onto the CPPT/CPBW, if such a committee exists (see below). An enterprise is understood to mean private sector enterprises with an industrial or commercial purpose, and not-for-profit enterprises in areas such as social services and health.

The social elections- which also involve CPBWs/CPPTs - take place every four years (BE0309302F). Voters are divided into a number of categories, for each of which there are separate electoral lists. For the election of members of works councils, these are white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, young workers (provided that the enterprise employs at least 25 workers under the age of 25) and managers (provided that the enterprise employs at least 15 managers). Lists of candidates representing blue-collar, white-collar and young workers lists may be presented only by the three intersectoral trade union organisations that are recognised as representative. These are: the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV); the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV); and the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicats Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België, CGSLB/ACLVB). Lists of candidates representing managers may be presented by these three representative intersectoral trade unions, or by the organisation regarded as representative of managers - the National Confederation of Managerial Staff (Confédération Nationale des Cadres/Nationale Confederatie voor Kaderleden, CNC/NCK) - or by managers in the enterprise itself ('house' lists). In the latter case, the list must be supported by at least 10% of the enterprise’s managers. In each list of candidates presented, the number of women and men must be proportional to the number of workers employed in the unit concerned.

The works council is chaired by the employer or a representative, and the secretariat function is carried out by an employee representative.

Works councils meet at least once a month. Their powers are as follows:

  • receiving information on economic and financial matters and on employment issues;
  • playing a consultative role, particularly in respect of such issues as work organisation, working conditions and output, the introduction of new technology, vocational training and retraining, outplacement, staff policy, structural alterations to the enterprise, collective redundancies and early retirement, and the closure of the enterprise;
  • making decisions, particularly in relation to matter such as the criteria for dismissal and re-employment, work rules, annual holidays, and paid study leave; and
  • carrying out monitoring, particularly on the application of social and industrial relations legislation, the redeployment of workers with disabilities, vocational skills criteria and enabling young people to enter the labour market.

With regard to the protection of employee representatives, the law states that delegates on works councils and CPBWs/CPPTs, and candidates standing at social elections, may not be dismissed except for a 'just cause' accepted by the Labour Tribunal or for employment-related reasons accepted by the relevant sectoral joint committee. This protection begins 30 days before the day on which the date of the social elections is published. Representatives (both titular and substitute) continue to be protected until the end of their term of office. The same rule applies to unelected candidates, with protection terminating when the candidate no longer meets the eligibility criteria. In the case of unelected candidates who stood at the previous elections without being elected, protection is limited to two years after the publication of the results. During the period of protection, the employer may not decide unilaterally to transfer candidates and representatives to another enterprise of the same legal entity.

A committee for prevention and protection at the workplace (CPBW/CPPT) is obligatory in companies with 50 employees or more and is also a joint body. Its employee-side members are elected in the social elections in a similar (though not identical way to those on works councils. The committee looks after safety, health and the protection of the living and working environment, as well as the application of legislation relevant to this matter.

Statistics

Please provide the most recent available statistics (in absence of statistics please provide estimates referring to sources) on the following (referring to other workplace employee representation and participation structures where works councils are not present and to widespread collective agreements on the issue where there is no legislation):

  • the total number of employees and undertakings/establishments in your country;

According to official social security statistics, in June 2001, there were 3,487,283 employees in employment in Belgium, of whom 1,967,973 were men and 1,519,310 women. These employees were employed in 257,357 establishments.

  • the total number of undertakings/establishments covered by the works councils legislation in your country and their total employment (data should be as much as possible disaggregated by gender, company size and sector);
  • the total number of undertakings/establishments in your country which have established works councils and their total employment (data should be as much as possible disaggregated by gender, company size and sector).

Please provide any other national data indicating the number/diffusion of works councils.

At the last social elections of employee representatives in 2000 (BE0006316F), elections for works councils were organised in 3,218 companies and for CPBWs/CPPTs in 5,642 companies. The three main trade unions, NCK/CNC and a number of independent lists presented a total of 120,000 candidates. The total number of employees of enterprises that normally employed at least 100 workers - and thus should have elected a works council - stood at 1,203,047 (ie around a third of all employees) of whom 938,537 worked in the commercial sector and 264,510 in the not-for-profit sector (figures from Ministry for Employment and Labour). A total of 3,185 works councils were elected, with 18,865 employee representatives - 13,173 men and 5,692 women.

Practice

If there are any other statistical sources or recent research on the current practice of works councils or other workplace representation/participation bodies, please give details of the results paying attention to the issues covered by Question 1 (Regulation). Please provide as much quantitative data as possible - eg how many meetings and how often, chair, agenda, composition (eg how many representatives of management, if any, workers, proportion of women members, proportion of women as head of works councils etc) and identify factors of success. Please indicate how the works councils (or works council-type bodies) institution has evolved over the years.

There does not appear to be much statistical or research data available on the practice of workplace employee representation in Belgium. Theoretically a meeting ground for 'ideological' confrontation between employers and trade unions, the works council is in reality more a forum for information and consultation of workers on their enterprise's financial status and strategy and on personnel movements. Work rules and hiring and dismissal procedures are also discussed in the works council, as noted above. Furthermore, since 1996-7, enterprises are required to submit a detailed annual report to the National Bank, covering developments in personnel issues, employee turnover, vocational training and the use of public employment incentives. This 'social balance sheet' must be drawn up and discussed within the works council.

The 2000 social elections did not fundamentally change the power balance between the three main trade union confederations at the previous elections in 1995. At national level, CSC/ACV retained its dominant position with nearly 57% of the seats on works councils and 59% of the seats on CPBWs/CPPTs. FGTB/ABVV won a virtually unchanged one-third of the seats on both representative bodies, while CGSLB/ACLVB increased its number of seats on both works councils (to 6.22%) and CPBWs/CPPTs (6.11%). In the works council elections, the number of votes won by FGTB/ABVV candidates fell somewhat from around 38% in 1995 to 33%, while CSC/ACV slightly increased its score to around 52% and, for the first time, CGSLB/ACLVB obtained over 10% of the votes. FGTB/ABVV thus lost votes but this was not accompanied by a loss in works council seats, while CSC/ACV lost a few seats, despite an increase in votes. The difference between numbers of votes and number of seats allocated is the result of the so-called 'D'Hondt' system, a formula for the division of seats that is also used in political elections. The system operates theoretically in favour of the two larger unions, which will obtain relatively more seats than votes, whereas the reverse is true for the smallest union. In the elections among management staff, the 2000 elections confirmed a downward trend in support for CNC/NCK and the house lists, which together won 2.37% of the seats on works councils - a loss of 0.36 points compared with the 1995 results.

The next social elections are due to be held in May 2004.

Social partners

Please summarise the views of trade unions on works councils etc and their operation, and outline relations between works councils and trade unions.

Please summarise the views of employers’ organisations on works councils etc and their operation.

The existence of works councils is currently not questioned by the social partners. This form of workplace employee representation and participation has existed since 1948 and seems to have become an institution. Within the bipartite National Labour Council, the trade unions have called for the workforce-size threshold for establishing a works council to be reduced from 100 employees to 50. However, employers' organisations refuse to negotiate on this matter without calling into question the system of employment protection for union representatives (BE0012333N). Thus, balance between the various interests is maintained by not addressing either of these two potentially controversial issues. On occasions, debates have arisen on the role of works councils, but without calling into question their operation or the need for them, which appear to be accepted by all parties. For example, the role of works councils in company reorganisation has been raised recently, as a result of the adoption of legislation in the wake of the controversy over the closure of the Renault Vilvoorde plant in 1997 (BE9704208N). This 'Renault law' (BE0004309F) lays down penalties in case of non-respect of mandatory steps for the announcement of collective redundancies, including consultation with employee representatives, but arguably leaves the role of the works council somewhat unclear. (Catherine Delbar, IST)

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