German trade unionist: Stronger worker participation helps in times of crisis

Karin Erhard is a member of the executive board for the German trade union IG BCE. [Jürgen Wegner]

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a rapid transformation of the workplace at a time when digitalisation and the Green Deal were beginning to restructure entire industries. In an interview with EURACTIV, trade unionist Karin Erhard describes how companies should go forward in these uncertain times and how a strong system of codetermination can help chart the way.

Karin Erhard is a member of the executive board for the German trade union IG BCE, which represents workers in a variety of sectors including mining, chemical, coal and pharmaceutical industries, and has more than 630,000 members. 

We are still likely in the early days of the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. How has this already impacted the workers that IG BCE represents?

In very different ways. We represent some industries that are very directly and strongly affected, for example the automotive suppliers. Reduced work hours are being implemented  everywhere. On the other hand, we have industrial sectors such as the paper industry, which are working at full capacity. The pharmaceutical industry also has more to do in the current situation. But we will probably have to deal with the issue of reduced working hours in all industrial sectors eventually.

In addition, most companies have changed their communication behaviour. Large meetings and events can no longer be held in person, so digital instruments such as telephone and video conferences are being used. This has implications for decision-making.

The coronavirus also affects corporate codetermination. Many general stockholders’ meetings for corporations have already been postponed. Bayer AG announced last week that it will hold its annual stockholders’ meeting digitally. The Works Constitution Law does not actually provide for such instruments at all. Here it is regulated that there are meetings with attendance, especially when important decisions are made. But in times of crisis, you have to be more flexible.

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In some ways, the future of work is already here, as digitisation and the drive to decarbonise have begun to change the face of employment. With radical changes to the workplace on the horizon, labour unions and other worker representatives want to chart a path that makes the transition fair for all involved.

Some experts have credited Germany’s comparatively low unemployment numbers during the 2008/2009 recession and its success post-crisis to its strong tradition of codetermination. Is there anything to it?

Yes, a lot! We did a great deal back then to get through the crisis well, for example by strengthening collective bargaining agreements and employee participation. Company determination, in particular, was a decisive factor. The fact that we had relatively few unemployed in 2008/2009 was, in my view, due to the fact that there was a combination of solutions under collective agreements and under Works Constitution Law, which went hand in hand and prevented mass unemployment.

What is currently rolling into our sectors has a completely different dimension. We are not yet able to assess what kind of upheaval will come after the crisis. There are currently many questions that are relevant to codetermination: changes in working hours, aligning shift systems, mobile working. For some things there are regulations, for others not. Codetermination and innovative solutions are needed here.

What should other European countries and businesses take from the German experience in 2008/2009 in addressing our current economic challenges?

In Germany, we have a special and established system of codetermination that is not transferable one-to-one to other countries. That is why we have long been trying to establish uniform standards and regulations at the European level. Unfortunately, however, this often fails because there are different sensitivities and political majorities in the member states.

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Turning to the Green Deal and climate change: Recently, the Hans Böckler Foundation published a report entitled “No ‘Green Deal’ without a ‘Social Deal.'” In this report, it summarises the criticism of trade unions and works councils against parts of the Green Deal. The main point is that there is no employee involvement. How do you see that?

I can only agree with that. We also call for a “Just Transition,” i.e. an overall just energy system transformation. This means that not only ecological but also social and economic aspects must play a role. The participation rights of employees must be taken into account at all costs, because interest groups, in particular, are often ambassadors for change and drivers of innovation. Only in this way can a Green Deal also be a “social deal” that brings justice for all parties involved.

If you could implement one measure immediately, at the German or European level, to improve this transition, what would it be?

As already mentioned, this would above all mean better and more involvement of trade unions at European level – in other words, more rights of codetermination for employees, regardless of which country they work in. At the moment, there are more rights to information and few possibilities for sanctions.

We also need better privacy protection with regard to Big Data or artificial intelligence.

Are there any parting thoughts you would like to share with us?

That solidarity is very important in such times and can strengthen us as a society. Then the crisis would also have a positive aspect. 

And also, that where there are well-functioning structures and strong codetermination, measures can develop much more quickly. We have now concluded many pandemic plans and agreements with the employers, which also include the effects of reduced working hours. I hope that this will help us to save as many jobs as possible and get through the crisis in good shape.

Digitalisation is a threat as much as an opportunity for workers, experts say

While digitalisation offers more flexible forms of work, it can also be a threat to well-being and encroach on work-life balance, policymakers warned during an event organised by EURACTIV.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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