– By Petra Szucsich

All employees in Austria have a legal right to representation. Provided there are at least five employees in a workplace, the employees can set up a works council (Betriebsrat), whose major task is to represent the interests of the employees. In practice, works councils are very common in workplaces with more than fifty employees and rather rare in smaller enterprises.

While the trade unions are active above enterprise level, works councils act on enterprise level. This so-called “dual model of co-determination” ensures enforcement and co-determination on two levels and the best possible representation of workers’ interests.

The works council is elected by all employees for a term of four years. The number of members depends on the size of the enterprise. Currently there are about 50,000 works council members all over Austria. As the works council is not directly a trade union body, non-trade unionists can run for election as well. However, 90% of all works council members are trade unionists. Thus they have a considerable influence on the policy of the OeGB and its affiliated unions.

In addition to that, there is a separate body to represent young people (Jugendvertrauensrat) in workplaces where there are at least five employees aged under 18.

The works council should meet at least once a month and should have a joint meeting with the employer at least once every three months. The members of the works councils act as representatives of the trade union in their enterprises. They distribute information material and recruit new union members. Additionally, they oversee the actions of the employer to ensure that the law and collective agreements are properly carried out.

Special rights and tasks

The works councils have special rights and tasks. They usually have more power in social affairs and employment matters than in economic and financial areas. But in some areas they have a right of veto. Thus the employer needs the agreement of the works council to act. These areas include: the normal start and end of a working day, certain works rules, the date on which wages and salaries are paid, etc. According to the Labour Organisation Act the works councils carry out the following tasks:

Co-determination in economic matters:

  • Right to be informed and consulted about the business’s employment plans
  • Inspections of the balance sheet
  • Questions of changes in company structure
  • Objection to financial management

Co-determination in social and personnel matters:

  • Collective agreements on enterprise level
  • Hiring and transfers of workers remunerations
  • Promotions
  • Allocation of company flats
  • In-company training
  • Contesting firings

Co-determination in cultural matters:

  • Leisure time and cultural activities
  • Sponsoring of educational and sports facilities
  • Company libraries

Works councils are usually not involved in negotiations on pay. These take place at industry level among the Social Partners. However, sometimes they may negotiate additional improvements.