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Forms of Workers' Participation

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The phrase workers’ participation is used loosely to encompass various forms of workers’ participation in decision making, usually at the enterprise level. They complement other forms that may exist at the industrial or sectoral level and the national level, such as bodies for tripartite cooperation. The types of workers’ participation arrangement differ widely with regard to their functions and powers, ranging from informal individual employee suggestion schemes to co-determination of certain matters by workers’ representatives together with management. The mechanisms used for encouraging employee participation vary so widely that it is impossible to review them fully here. The main forms that have attracted recent interest, particularly in the field of work organization, are reviewed below; to these could be added the historical example of self-management by workers in former Yugoslavia. As particularly relevant today, joint safety and health committees are examined as a special form of workers’ participation within the larger labour relations context.

The idea of workers’ participation arose in Europe, where collective bargaining has usually been at the branch or industry level; this often left a gap of employee representation at the enterprise or plant level, which became filled by bodies such as works councils, works committees, enterprise committees and so forth. Many developing countries have also adopted legislative initiatives with a view to having works councils or similar structures set up (e.g., Pakistan, Thailand, Zimbabwe) as a means of promoting labour-management cooperation. The relationship of these bodies to trade unions and collective bargaining has been the subject of considerable legislation and negotiation. This is reflected in a provision of the ILO Workers’ Representatives Convention, 1971 (No. 135), which states that where both trade union representatives and elected representatives exist in the same undertaking, measures shall be taken to ensure that the existence of those representatives is not used to undermine the position of the trade union (Article 5).

Direct Participation

Workers may participate in decision making either directly themselves or indirectly through their representatives – trade unions or elected employee representatives. Since the 1980s, there has been a spread of direct participation by workers, if the term participation is understood as the exercise of any influence on their work or how it is to be carried out. Thus workers may “participate” in work-related decisions not only when there is an institution, such as a quality circle, at the workplace. Accordingly, a simple exercise of work enrichment may be a form of promoting direct participation of workers.

Direct participation may be on an individual basis – for example, through suggestion schemes or “enriched” work. It may also be on a group basis – for example, in quality circles or similar small-group activities. Teamwork in itself constitutes a form of group-based direct participation. Direct participation may be integrated into decisions about daily work, or it may take place outside daily work, such as in a voluntary quality circle that cuts across the group structure habitually used. Direct participation may also be “consultative” or “deliberative”; research by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has explored this particular aspect in some detail (Regalia and Gill 1996). With consultative participation, employees are encouraged and enabled, either as individuals or members of a group, to make their views known, but it is up to management to accept or reject their proposals. Deliberative participation, on the other hand, places some of traditional management responsibility in the employees’ hands, as in the case of teamworking or semi-autonomous work groups wherein some authority has been delegated to the workers.

Works Councils and Similar Structures; Co-determination

The term works councils describes arrangements for the represen-tation of employees, usually at the plant level although they also exist at higher levels (company, group of companies, industry, European Union). The relationship to trade unions is often delineated by legislation or clarified by collective agreement, but tensions between these institutions sometimes remain all the same. Extensive use of works councils, sometimes called workers’ committees, cooperation committees or otherwise, is well established in a number of European countries, such as Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands and, under the impetus of Directive No. 94/45/EC of 1994 on European works councils, can be anticipated to spread in that region for large enterprises. Several Central and Eastern European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, have enacted legislation to encourage the emergence of works councils. They are found as well in some countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America; part of the post-apartheid labour law reform in South Africa, for instance, included establishing a form of works councils alongside trade union structures.

The possible powers of works councils are best illustrated by the example of Germany, although in some ways it is a unique case. Weiss (1992) describes the works council in that country as the form of institutionalized representation of interests for employees within an establishment. A works council enjoys certain rights to information, consultation (as in all countries) and co-determination (much more rare). As the most far-reaching form of participation, co-determination covers participation in arrangements on health and safety at work and the formal adoption of a reconciliation of interests and a “social plan” in the event of a substantial alteration in the establishment, such as a plant closure. Co-determination rights also extend to guidelines for staff selection and appraisal, in-service training and measures affecting individual workers such as grading, transfer and dismissal. The German works council is empowered to conclude works agreements at the enterprise level and can initiate complaints where it believes the agreement is not being honoured. Included in the areas of obligatory collective co-determination are accident prevention and health protection, works rules, working time, the fixing of performance-related pay rates, the manner of payment, general principles governing holidays and others. On these matters, the employer cannot take action without the works council’s agreement. The works council also has the right to take the initiative and can refer a matter to the establishment-level arbitration committee for enforcement. As Weiss (1992) characterizes it, the works council’s role is “participating in the ‘how’ after the employer has made a decision on the ‘whether’”. The right to consultation affords the works council a chance to play a part in the decisions made by the employer, but failure to consult will not invalidate the decision. The subjects on which consultation is required include protection against dismissal, protection against technical hazards, training and preparation of a social plan.

The works council must observe the principles of cooperation with the employer and the peace obligation (no work stoppages); it also must cooperate with trade unions present and with the appropriate employers’ organization. Works councils are bound to conduct their business impartially, without regard to race, religion or creed, nationality, origin, political or union activity, sex or age of the employees. The employer provides the facilities for the works council, funds it and is liable for its actions.

Works councils are elected separately for manual and non-manual workers in Germany. Special works council elections are held; while there is no legal connection between these representatives and trade union officers in fact, they often coincide. In Austria and Germany, special representation is ensured for disabled workers and young workers and trainees. Works council members receive no remuneration for this, but necessarily incurred expenses are reimbursed. Members are guaranteed retention of their pay level and job grading after the term of office has expired and enjoy special protection against dismissal. They are entitled to release from work to conduct works council business and attend training. Such protections are in line with the Workers’ Representatives Convention (No. 135), which calls for workers’ representatives in an undertaking to enjoy effective protection against any act prejudicial to them, including dismissal, based on their status or activities as a workers’ representative (Article 1).

Many countries feature less ambitious works council schemes that provide for information and consultation rights. Especially where trade unions have little presence on the shop floor level, there is considerable interest in introducing works councils or workers’ committees as a means for workers to have a voice at the workplace level.

Quality Circles and Total Quality Management

Quality circles and other similar group activities were rapidly introduced in a large number of enterprises in some Western European countries (e.g., the United Kingdom and France) at the start of the 1980s and in the United States a little earlier. They built upon “Quality of Working Life” (QWL) or “Humanization of Work” programmes that began in the early 1970s. Their spread was considerably later in some other Western countries (e.g., Germany) and still seems to be very limited in countries where joint project groups are the predominant means of dealing with work organization, such as Sweden. They were stimulated by a belief that Japan’s ability to produce innovative and high-quality products at low cost had something to do with the way human resources were managed in that country; quality circles were the most visible and easily transplantable feature of Japanese human resource management. Quality circles are generally expected to produce two types of effect: one is the enhancement of quality and productivity and the other is the fostering of a sense of participation in work-related decisions among workers, leading to increased job satisfaction and better industrial relations. In Japan the emphasis has been placed more on the first aspect and in Europe and North America on the second. There are also structural differences: while circle leaders are normally appointed by management in Japan, they are often elected in Germany. Today, the emphasis of QWL programmes is more on enhancing productivity and competitiveness (Ozaki 1996).

In some of the countries where quality circles were experimented with widely in the 1980s, such as France and the United Kingdom, there has been a certain disenchantment with their relative ineffectiveness in producing the expected results. Many circles disappeared a few years after their creation; many others exist on paper, but are in fact moribund. The failure has been attributed to many factors – their tendency to create confusion in the normal lines of command, non-management control over membership, circles’ determining their own agenda without heed for management priorities, lack of enthusiasm or hostility on the part of middle management, absence of durable commitment on the part of top management and restriction of scope to minor work-related issues.

Realization of these shortcomings led to the formation of a theory of “Total Quality Management” (TQM). Certain principles of TQM have implications for employee participation: all employees are to participate in the process of improving the business, and responsibility for quality is to be assigned to people who in fact control the quality of what they do. Thus TQM encourages job enlargement and enrichment leading to semi-autonomous work groups. It also promotes horizontal coordination in a firm through, for example, the use of ad hoc, multi functional or interdepartmental project teams.

Joint Project Groups

The practice of establishing joint project groups to study the best ways of introducing technological or organizational changes through the joint efforts of managers and workers is a traditional feature of labour relations in some countries, such as Sweden. A joint project group is normally composed of managers, workplace union representatives and shop-floor workers and often assisted by outside experts. The management and the union concerned often establish joint project groups separately on four issues: new technology, work organization, training and work environment. The Swedish model of joint project groups presents a notable example of direct participation of shop-floor workers within a framework of established collective labour relations. The system is also found in other countries, such as Germany and Japan.

Semi-autonomous Group Work and Teamwork

Semi-autonomous group work and teamwork are both forms of on-line direct participation of shop-floor workers in work-related decisions, unlike the above-mentioned joint project group work, which is a form of off-line participation. The main difference between the two forms of participation lies in the degree of autonomy which the members of the team or group enjoy in organizing their work. Semi-autonomous group work was used extensively in Scandinavia, although recently there has been a move back to a more traditional approach; there have been experiments with it elsewhere in Europe as well.

While experiments with semi-autonomous group work are generally declining, teamwork is spreading fast throughout Western countries. The degree of autonomy which a team enjoys varies widely from one company to another. Team structure also differs. In many countries, team leaders are usually appointed by management, but in a few countries (e.g., Germany) they are often elected by co-workers. Frequently, the creation of teams is accompanied by significant changes in the role of first-line supervisors; they tend to take on greater responsibility for advising team members and for both vertical and horizontal communication, but lose their supervisory role. Employers have shown increasing interest in teamwork because it tends to facilitate the upgrading of workers’ skills and widens the range of workers’ tasks, thus allowing greater flexibility in production processes. However, it is sometimes criticized by workers as a means of inducing them to work harder “voluntarily” by substituting co-workers’ pressure for management control.

Employee Representation on Supervisory Boards; Employee Shareholding

Some commentators include forms of employee ownership or representation on company boards as expressions of workers’ participation. In Germany and the Scandinavian countries, among others, workers have indirect participation above the enterprise level by the inclusion of workers’ representatives on supervisory boards. This involves incorporating workers’ representatives in the traditional company board structure, where they are in a minority (although sometimes, as in Germany, a numerous one). It does not necessarily imply participation in the active management of the company and the workers’ representatives have the same status as other board members. This means they are to put the interests of the company first and foremost and are bound by the same duty of secrecy as other board members. Holding positions on the board may provide access to additional information, however, and a number of trade unions have sought the right to have workers’ representatives on boards. It is a phenomenon now seen in Eastern and Western Europe and North America, but remains rather rare elsewhere.

Another expression of workers’ participation is as owners of shares in limited liability companies or corporations. Sometimes workers are able to scrape enough capital together to purchase a firm that would otherwise be going out of business. The rationale behind these situations is that a worker who identifies financially with a company will work harder for its success. Important variables are the form of participation (return on investment rights or control rights), its degree (amount and timing of returns) and the reasons behind financial participation. In any event, these practices are largely reserved to Europe and North America. If cooperative ventures are considered part of this phenomenon, however, the notion of workers being stakeholders in their work is much more widespread throughout the world. It would be interesting to study whether and to what extent employee ownership of a firm or of shares in it has an effect on the workplace safety and health record.

Health and Safety Committees and Representatives

A specialized form of workers’ participation is seen in the development of health and safety committees and health and safety representatives (for worker participation in Denmark, see also "Case Study: Denmark"). The legislation of a number of countries provides for the establishment of such committees and for such representatives (e.g., Belgium, several provinces of Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Sweden). Smaller companies, variously defined, are usually excluded from such mandatory measures, but they, like larger units, often set up health and safety committees on their own initiative. In addition, many collective bargaining agreements have led to the creation of such committees and to the designation of health and safety representatives (e.g., in Canada and the United States).

Often, collective bargaining agreements will strengthen the legislatively guaranteed powers afforded to workers’ safety and health representatives. The committees and representatives vary in regard to their relationship to trade unions and works councils, their election or appointment, their duties and functions and their impact. As a form of workers’ involvement in the specialized sphere of health and safety, such committees and representatives can be a contributing factor to improving both working conditions and the labour relations climate. They have been most successful when they form an integral part of management’s safety and health programme, have access to adequate information, involve rank-and-file workers in their activities to help ensure continuity and are backed up by effective government labour inspection. Where employers maintain occupational health services or have safety experts, a fruitful relationship with them can also promote the success of joint health and safety committees. A recent workplace survey in the United Kingdom, for instance, found that “joint consultative committees, with all employee representatives appointed by unions, significantly reduced workplace injuries relative to those establishments where the management alone determines health and safety arrangements” (Reilly, Paci and Holl 1995). They also reported an important role for joint consultative committees where employee representatives were appointed in other ways. However, some research also indicates that joint health and safety committees fall short of the expectations held out for them. The reasons suggested for this differ: insufficient support from management, participants who are not adequately informed or trained, workers not represented forcefully enough and so on.

Workers’ health and safety representatives may be appointed by management (as in many workplaces where no trade union is present), designated by the trade union (as in the United Kingdom) or elected directly by the workers at the enterprise or higher level (as in Denmark). A parallel system will be used for worker representatives on a joint labour-management health and safety committee which, while bipartite, will not always have equal representation from both sides. General institutions for workers’ representation are often complemented by special representative structures for health and safety (as in Spain). The mechanism chosen will often reflect the existence of other labour relations institutions in a country: in France, for instance, employee members of the joint health, safety and working conditions committees are appointed by a delegate elected from the works committee and staff representatives; in Germany, members designated by the works council will be among those serving on a joint health and safety committee. Works councils in the Netherlands may delegate their powers to a safety, health and welfare committee. A strong link, if not identity, between trade union representatives and health and safety representatives is usually seen as desirable (as in Quebec (Canada), Ireland, Norway and Sweden), but where trade union density is low this runs the risk of depriving large numbers of workers of representation rights in relation to health and safety. Speculation that joint health and safety committees might lead to extending greater workers’ participation to other fields has remained largely unfounded.

Workers’ health and safety representatives normally have the following rights: to have access to information on health and safety and the introduction of new technology, to be consulted on these matters, to be involved in monitoring workplace conditions, to accompany inspectors (sometimes called the “walkaround right”), to be involved in accident investigations and to make recommendations to management on the improvement of working conditions. In some countries their powers go beyond this to include the right to engage in co-decision making, to initiate inspections and accident investigations and to review management’s reports to government. Most importantly, some workers’ health and safety representatives are empowered to order the shut-down of an imminently hazardous operation (also called “red-tagging”, for the marker placed on the spot), as in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. They are in certain instances, such as in France and some provinces of Canada, directly involved in the enforcement of health and safety regulations. Prior consultation of the joint committee is sometimes necessary before an employer can make any significant change in health, safety or working conditions (as in France and the Netherlands). In Belgium intercompany health services are under the control of a joint committee. In Italy the committees’ role includes the promotion of prevention, and in Greece they can, with the employers’ agreement, call for expert opinions on health and safety questions.

Workers’ health and safety representatives necessarily enjoy protection from discrimination or retaliation in the exercise of their functions. They are entitled to at least some time off with pay, as well as to have the necessary means (the definition of which is often debated) to exercise their functions. In addition, while in office some are specially shielded from economic layoffs (redundancies) or given extra protection from dismissal (as in Belgium). Frequently, worker health and safety representatives have a right to receive specialized training (as in Denmark).

The effect that workers’ health and safety representatives and joint committees can have will of course depend not only on rights and duties set out in legislation or in a collective bargaining agreement, but on how they are exercised in practice. This is in turn influenced by factors that affect workers’ participation generally. Such representatives and joint committees are no substitute for the effective government enforcement of health and safety standards or for what may be achieved by means of collective bargaining. However, “most observers believe that [mandated joint health and safety] committees provide a more efficient regulatory regime for safety and health than inspectorate or civil liability schemes” (Kaufman and Kleiner 1993). In any event, the trend is definitely towards greater workers’ participation in health and safety matters, at least in terms of collective agreements covering larger enterprises and legislation. Where they operate as effective institutions, joint health and safety committees can be a valuable tool for identifying problems and raising awareness of hazards, thus potentially reducing the incidence of injury, disease and death on the job. The extent to which they are effective, however, depends on a large range of variables in the particular labour relations system and in the strategic approach taken to health and safety at the workplace.


Schregle (1994) has commented:

In practice, none of these workers’ participation schemes has produced the expected results. There are many reasons for this. One is that, in a general way, trade unions and employers do not have the same view of participation. While it is the workers’ desire to exert a tangible and concrete influence on employers’ decisions in the sense of power-sharing, employers insist on management rights or management prerogatives, derived from private ownership, to run the business according to their own criteria and decision-making power, affording to workers at most the right to express their views and positions without binding effect on management. The result of all this is confusion over such terms as consultation, workers’ participation, workers’ participation in management, co-determination, co-management, etc.

The fact remains that in most workplaces around the world, there is little effective employee participation at the enterprise level. The first level of participation and indeed a prerequisite for it, is the provision of information, followed by consultation. Within Europe, research has indicated a wide variation in the extent of implementation of the 1989 framework directive on health and safety, when it comes to workers’ participation; it may get a new lease on life with the impetus of the 1995 directive on European works councils. A high degree of non-participation also characterizes other regions. Nevertheless, high hopes continue to be held out for strengthening mechanisms for workers’ participation at the enterprise level.

The traditional approach to workers’ participation as promotional of greater worker-management cooperation falls short of being satisfactory in relation to health and safety issues, where the categorization of labour relations as conflictual or cooperative does not particularly advance the debate. As Vogel (1994) notes:

...the problem of worker participation is clearly not confined to the institutionalized forms of participation in or outside the undertaking. The basis of participation lies in the recognition that distinct interests are in play giving rise to specific rationales... The essential legitimacy of participation is to be found outside the firm in a democratic requirement which refuses to admit that the self-determination of individuals should be confined within the rules of political representation and in a view of health conceived as a purposeful, social process through which individuals and communities develop strategies for self-fulfilment and defence.

In the end, the differing functions of various workers’ participation schemes make it difficult to assess their comparative impact. As collective bargaining shrinks in coverage, however, greater use of management-led workers’ participation arrangements may be expected.



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