21st Mar 2023


MEPs push for greater powers for workers' councils

  • Currently, there are 990 active European Works Councils who represent millions of workers (Photo: Unsplash)
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On Thursday (2 January), the European Parliament passed a report calling on the EU Commission for the revision of the European Works Councils (EWCs) directive. But what are they?

EWCs are the first and only European institutions representing employees at company level. Their aim is to provide a way of informing and consulting employees in companies operating in at least two countries, which means they have a multinational focus.

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To better understand their function, they can be seen as a bridge between what happens at national level to ensure at least a coordinated effort to achieve similar working conditions for workers within the same company.

According to EWCdb.eu, a database from the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), there are currently 990 active EWCs, representing millions of workers.

But with the present framework (which originally dates back to 1994 and was only recast in 2009), the goals of the original directive — to ensure the information and consultation rights of European workers — have not yet been achieved, according to Aline Hoffmann, the head of Europeanisation industrial relations' at ETUI, talking to EUobserver.

She highlights that the idea of building a pan-European structure for companies active in more than one country is around 50 years old. Only in 1994 did the directive go ahead, and it was a pioneer in seeking to establish a common framework for all players involved, she points out — although with the handicap of not defining what these bodies should be doing.

In order to fill these gaps, better definitions of the competences of EWCs were laid down in 2009, in the wake of studies such as those by ETUI that showed there was no consultation, and that information exchanged was not useful for the objectives set by the directive.

What is Parliament asking for?

German European People's Party (EPP) MEP Dennis Radtke's approved report focuses on improving enforceability, which translates into a better sanctions policy, greater clarification of transnational issues, and the definition of confidentiality, to name but a few examples.

"Some of the fines we are seeing weigh less than a feather in the balance sheets of these corporations," says Oliver Roethig, regional secretary of UNI Europa, an organisation who represents seven million service workers. He explains receiving timely information about restructuring allowed unions in the past to propose alternatives and save jobs.

The report, which received 385 votes in favour, is a first step towards "improving and guaranteeing democracy at work", according to Eugenia Rodríguez Palop (The Left), one of the leading MEPs of the report.

The adaptation of the directive seeks to update this framework to current times, and to tackle some of the main problems that hinder its consultation and information functions.

"This is a courageous but also a realistic gamble. It is calling for greater penalties for companies that fail to comply or the suspension of decisions that have not been consulted," says The Left MEP.

Big Business objects

BusinessEurope, the Confederation of European Business, on the other hand, sees no need to revise the directive, and calls it counterproductive. "The changes would slow down decision-making in companies, blur the difference between EU-wide EWCs consultations and national information and consultation procedures," stressed Maxime Cerutti, director of social affairs, to EUobserver.

The employers' representatives also express their concern that unrealistic sanctions may arise, "particularly at this time of energy crisis, the EU should improve companies' competitiveness instead of interfering in large companies' social dialogue practices".

During the last plenary in Strasbourg, French MEP Dominique Bilde (of the hard-right Identity and Democracy group), described the revision as "useless bureaucracy" for companies at a time of crisis such as the present one.

Setting higher sanctions and ensuring access to justice for these bodies are only mechanisms to increase consultation between companies and councils, not a way to stop the implementation of decisions, Hoffmann insists.

Their role is to ensure they are on the same level playing field, where decisions are made. Especially in the wake of Covid, as companies are implementing restructuring and changes that affect how people work. Decisions which, according to the directive, should be subject to information and consultation.

Now is the time to adjust the European legal framework to the modern times, according to Hoffmann: "More decisions are coming, especially with the transition to a more digital Europe and other new ways of working".


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