Videoconferencing and social dialogue
‘Videoconferencing’ is the use of audiovisual equipment connected by the internet or a dedicated network, which allows people in different places to communicate with one another. During the COVID-19 crisis, such tools have been widely used, including in social dialogue.
Background and status
There is no specific regulation at EU level on the use of videoconferencing. Before the COVID-19 crisis, some Member States had introduced the possibility of using videoconferencing in social dialogue. For instance, in France, since the 2017 reform that created the new form of employee representative body known as the Comité social et économique (CSE), companies have been allowed to use videoconferencing to bring CSEs together for up to three meetings a year, or even more if the employee representatives agree. Before that, between 2015 and 2017, the same rules applied to European works council (EWC) meetings. 
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, some Member States have permitted the use – or greater use – of videoconferencing to negotiate collective agreements or to inform and consult employee representatives. In France, an ordinance of 1 April 2020 removed on a temporary basis the threshold of three meetings and introduced the possibility of using conferences calls or email. 
In Germany, the use of videoconferencing had been prohibited, but the government introduced measures in April 2020 to allow employers to organise videoconferences with their works councils. The bill amending Article 129 of the Works Constitution Act (Betriebsverfassungsgesetz) was adopted in May 2020. Since then, and until 31 December 2020, meetings could be held and resolutions passed, by means of conference calls and videoconferencing, subject to certain conditions.
European trade union federation guidelines
In March 2020, the European trade union federations published guidelines for members of special negotiation bodies (SNBs), EWCs and European company works councils, and their coordinators. Members were requested to postpone annual or ordinary meetings and negotiation meetings until face-to-face meetings could be organised again.
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However, six months later, when it became clear that those extraordinary circumstances were going to continue, it was accepted that ‘social distancing and travel restrictions would further prevent face-to-face meetings for a considerable time to come’. Consequently, the European trade union federations published new recommendations setting out principles governing the temporary use of videoconferencing. One principle is to ‘agree formally with the management about the rules and specific conditions for the exceptional use of online or hybrid meetings’. Members of the relevant bodies were urged to request the best quality videoconferencing system available.
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On 11 June 2020, the Court of Appeal in Florence, Italy, ordered Italian papermaking group Sofidel to set up an EWC. The Italian trade unions had begun the process of creating an EWC in the company in 2015. Five years later, when the unions threatened legal action, shortly before a hearing at the Lucca court, the management decided to convene an SNB meeting by videoconference. The court decided in the employer’s favour, ruling that there was nothing in the relevant legislation that prevented the SNB being convened by videoconference. However, the Florence Court of Appeal then reversed the lower court’s ruling. In its judgment, the Court of Appeal held that the behaviour of Sofidel, which had made the convening of the SNB meeting conditional on the use of English only, with no interpretation, was anti-union in nature. 
Once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, it will be interesting to see what lessons can be learned from the use of videoconferencing in social dialogue. While there is no doubt that this tool will be increasingly used in the future, it will need to be managed correctly to ensure that social dialogue is robust and of good quality.