European Works Councils advocate a just transition into the future of work

As the work environment changes due to decarbonisation and digitisation, employees want a say in the transformation. [fuyu liu | Shutterstock]

In some ways, the future of work is already here, as digitalisation 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.

“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before,” founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab wrote in 2016

Today, this ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ has begun to alter the workplace in fundamental ways, and these new technologies as well as the drive to decarbonise present both new opportunities and unprecedented challenges. 

For many, this transformation will reach every facet of their employment. A recent study conducted by IndustriAll Europe, a federation of European trade unions from the metal, chemical, energy, mining, textile, clothing and footwear sectors, and the European Chemicals Employers Group (ECEG) highlighted the depths of these changes for workers in the chemical industry. 

Work environments will become increasingly mobile with more options for tele-working, and more repetitive tasks are likely to be taken over by digital tools or AI. All of this will require employees to learn new skills and participate in retraining programs. “Lifelong learning is no longer an option. It is a must,” Maike Niggemann, a policy advisor at IndustriAll Europe, highlighted.

The transition’s impact on workers

Many employees already feel the impacts of this transition. While digitalisation has increased efficiency, it has also meant outsourcing and job losses. One prominent example many mention is the case of human resource departments. Once an entire department on-site, many companies have relocated their HR departments to India. 

In some cases, changes and uncertainty loom on the horizon, especially regarding the European Green Deal and its timeline of becoming climate neutral by 2050. 

One such company is HeidelbergCement AG. Norbert Steinert, the chair of that company’s European Works Council (EWC), explained that they have been working to reduce their environmental footprint, investing in research into carbon capture and new ways to make cement, as well as purchasing carbon credits. 

Yet, the Green Deal’s goal of climate neutrality by 2050 has the company uncertain, particularly when it comes to job losses. “I am asking management basic questions: What does it mean for us? How will the path forward look? Right now, they have not been able to give me any answers,” Steinert told EURACTIV.

In the European Green Deal’s Just Transition Mechanism, there is a budget set aside for retraining workers impacted by job losses. Coming from the EU budget and private sector investment, it promises to mobilise 143 billion euros over the next decade. Additional funding for training is available in the European Social Fund (ESF) and the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF).

However, for those that represent workers, this funding does not go far enough. “There is nothing at all [in the European Green Deal] on the rights of workers…there will be no just transition if it is not we all…we all have to be involved,” Aline Conchon of IndustriAll Europe noted.

Instead, they want the European Commission to focus on discrepancies in workers participation between Member States and guarantee at least a minimum standard. 

Worker participation uneven across the EU

Legislation guaranteeing co-determination–employee presence on boards of directors, which strengthens their ability to negotiate with management–is not uniform across the EU. 

Germany has a long history of co-determination, dating back to the Weimar era with the 1920 Works Council Act, which is the basis for the current Works Constitution. Today, companies larger than 2,000 employees are required to reserve half of the seats on the company’s supervisory board for employee representatives. 11 other EU countries have similar guarantees for both private and state-owned companies. 

In countries like Poland, Spain, and the Czech Republic, this only exists for state-owned companies, and in Italy, Belgium, and Estonia among others, employee representation on boards is limited to a few, exceptional cases. 

On the European level, a 1994 directive established the creation of EWCs, which bring together employee representatives from all the European countries in which a company operates. Central management then consultants these representatives in areas affecting the transnational operations of the company. 

However, for these multinational companies, differences in national legislation impact  worker participation and the efficacy of EWCs. Heinz-Georg Webers, chair of the Bergkamen Works Council at Bayer AG, emphasised that while he, as a German, is empowered to negotiate with management, that is not the case with his counterparts across the bloc. “I guess that when actions are triggered outside of Germany, they go differently,” he said.

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