Employers and employees give thumbs up to workplace representation

In the run-up to the social elections in Belgium, surveys of employers and employees revealed that the social dialogue system at the workplace is still considered to be satisfactory by the stakeholders. Nonetheless, employers call for a simplified election procedure in order to reduce the administrative burden of the social elections. Over a two-week period in May 2008, employees in more than 6,000 private sector companies elected their workplace representatives.

Election process

Over the period 5–18 May 2008, social elections were held throughout the Belgian private sector to elect workers’ representatives to serve on company-level information and consultation bodies, including both types of employee representation at the workplace – the works council (Conseils d’entreprise/Ondernemingsraden, CEs/ORs) and workplace health and safety committee (Comité pour la prévention et protection au travail/Comité voor preventie en bescherming op het werk, CPPT/CPBW). These workplace elections – also known as social elections – are held in the private sector every four years. While some other EU Member States also organise such elections, the Belgian system is notable for the nationwide organisation of these elections over a relatively brief period (BE0309302F). During a two-week period, workers in more than 6,000 private sector companies elect representatives for about 6,000 CPPTs/CPBWs and 3,000 works councils. More than 50,000 mandates – with more than 120,000 candidate positions – are assigned in these elections. The process creates a form of ‘election fever’ within the Belgian social dialogue system over this two-week period.

In the run-up to the 2008 elections, some interesting survey results were published. The survey findings showed that this type of workplace social dialogue still receives fairly good satisfaction ‘scores’ by the stakeholders involved, notably the workers and employers.

Randstad employee survey

The human resources (HR) services company, Randstad Belgium, commissioned a labour market survey (in Flemish) on the issue of employee participation. The survey followed the same methodology applied by Randstad in the previous survey four years ago: the ICMA international market research company carried out face-to-face interviews among a representative sample of 2,000 workers about their opinion on this issue. A random-walk method – involving multi-stage random sampling – was used and only companies with more than 20 staff participated in the survey.

As in the previous survey four years ago, employees indicated that they consider the works council to be a very important participation instrument in the industrial relations system. Of all possible employee participation resources, it obtains the highest scores. A clear majority of workers, including those in small companies, believe that a works council is also required in companies with fewer than 100 employees – in this regard, see the debate in Belgium on the implementation of the EU Directive 2002/14/EC establishing a general framework for informing and consulting employees in the European Community (BE0802039I). However, workers’ satisfaction regarding the functioning of works councils is – although still satisfactory – not particularly high, scoring an average of 6.1 on a 10-point scale. In line with the previous survey, CPPTs/CPBWs obtained a higher satisfaction score than the works council.

Only half of the interviewed employees show an interest in the social elections, by indicating that they would only vote if they had the possibility to do so. However, in the companies where social elections will certainly take place, the proportion of employees interested in the matter increases to 87%. Based on the survey findings, the Randstad study concludes that the social elections still receive a high level of employee support in those companies where these elections take place.

The trade unions, active in these representative bodies at the workplace, also obtained good scores in the Randstad survey, even among the group of non-union members. Some 70% of respondents agreed with the statement that trade unions understand the issues which trigger employee concerns. Furthermore, 72% of employees surveyed stated that workers trust the trade unions. Social dialogue at company level was also positively judged by the survey respondents: 77% of employees agreed with the proposition that management and trade unions in the company respect each other.

Voka employer survey

The Flemish intersectoral employer organisation (Vlaams Economisch Verbond, VOKA) organised an employer survey (in Flemish) on employee information and consultation. Although the VOKA survey is more limited in its methodological scope, the Belgian workplace representation system in the form of works councils and CPPTs/CPBWs obtained a rather positive evaluation by the employers surveyed. Only one in three respondents stated that if they had a free choice, they would not set up a works council or workplace health and safety committee. Nevertheless, 62% of the employers, who have this type of information and consultation body at their company, indicated that they maintain a good relationship with the employee representation.

The most critical remarks of the respondents among the employer group concerned the statutory protection against dismissal of employee representatives. In relation to this argument, the employers surveyed raised doubts about employees’ motives when running for candidate in the social elections. In the employers’ opinion, many of the candidates are running for election because they are afraid to lose their job and are seeking a form of job protection.

Commentary

Given the social partner dispute on the implementation of the EU Directive on information and consultation, as well as the recurrent media reports of a presumed ‘diminishing trade union support’ (see, for example, Trends, April 2008 (in Flemish)), the good scores obtained in the surveys regarding employee representation at the workplace surprised Belgian industrial relations observers. Nevertheless, the positive survey results do not mean that the country’s current information and consultation system cannot be further improved. For instance, employers who responded to the VOKA survey are calling for the simplification of the social election procedure in order to reduce the administrative burden of these elections.

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute for Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven

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