Court ruling gives works council more extensive right to information

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The act regulating the appointment of works councils has been criticised as being too general, exerting a negative effect on the functioning of the councils. In particular, the works councils’ financing and their access to information appear to be most adversely affected. A court decision regarding the range of information available to one company’s works council has set a precedent for other works councils in Poland to demand more extensive and precise information from employers.

Institutional framework

In Poland, works councils have been established since 2006 in line with EU Directive 2002/14/EC establishing a general framework for informing and consulting employees. According to the act on employee information and consultation, which was finally adopted by the Polish parliament in April 2006 (PL0605029I), a works council has the right to obtain information on the functioning and economic structure of the company and any planned changes, on the state, structure and future changes regarding employment, as well as on any actions undertaken to maintain the company’s level of development to date. The company is also obliged to inform the works council of any initiatives which could bring about crucial changes in the company’s organisation or employment bases. The act made the establishment of works councils mandatory in all enterprises with at least 50 employees.

Shortcomings of information rights

However, according to an initial assessment of the act on informing and consulting employees, the regulation fails to define clearly the employees’ right to information by not specifying exactly what kind of documents a works council can demand from the employer. Moreover, the act allows an employer to refuse access to required information if they believe that the disclosure of certain data may be harmful to the company.

Works councils seek court ruling

Such a scenario arose at the Factory of Motor Cars (Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych, FSO) in Poland’s capital city of Warsaw. The company’s works council was concerned about the high number of temporary workers being employed and requested that the employer provide information on the full cost of employment of such employees. However, the employer refused to disclose this information, claiming that its disclosure could be harmful to the company. As a result, the works council brought its case before the courts on the grounds that the company was in breach of the regulations. The court ruled in favour of the works council and ordered the employer to provide the requested information.

This case has set a precedent for other works councils in Poland, and to date nearly 20 similar petitions have been lodged with the courts. However, court proceedings are usually lengthy, as witnessed by the works council of the Alima Gerber food production company, which has been waiting for a court decision for several months, despite the fact that it was the first works council to bring such a petition before the courts.

The latter works council had demanded information on salaries, the size of production, along with current and future finances of the company. Such information was perceived by the council as being essential for discussions on working conditions and higher salaries. Nevertheless, the employer refused to disclose most of the information, claiming that it was confidential. The works council argued that the employer’s position was unfounded and, as a result, lodged its objection with the courts.

Commentary

The court decision regarding the FSO works council has generated a heated discussion over the range of information that employers are obliged to disclose and over the necessity to amend the law in question. However, it seems that the existing regulations, which reflect the provisions of EU Directive 2002/12/EC, are likely to be retained, while the range and the type of information to be disclosed by an employer will be specified by court decisions – similar to the case of the FSO works council.

Nevertheless, in late 2007, the All-Polish Coordination Committee for Changes of Act was established to seek amendments to the April 2006 act on informing and consulting employees. Such a step can be regarded as the start of a wider cooperation among works councils in this regard.

Rafał Towalski, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)

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