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Tuesday 1st May 2012 | 17:19
Workplace representation of employees by unions and works councils is less widespread in the UK than in most other European countries, according to a report published today by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. The UK ranks 21st out of 27 countries in the European Union in terms of the proportion of workplaces where employees have access to union or works council representation, raising questions about the ability of British workers to have a voice at the workplace.
The study, which is based on nationally representative data for countries across Europe, shows that workers in Denmark, Sweden and Finland are the most likely to have representatives at the workplace giving voice to their concerns. Greece and Portugal have the lowest levels of representation. The only other countries in the EU with lower levels of workplace representation than the UK are Lithuania, Austria, the Czech Republic and Malta.
The report points to various reasons why worker representation varies so much across Europe. It finds that worker representation is more common in countries where wage bargaining is carried out at a national or industry level, than it is in countries (such as the UK) where pay setting is decentralised at firm level. It is also more common in countries where trade unions or works council-type bodies have more extensive legislative support. The confirmation of the importance of the legislative framework is important in view of the EU's efforts to promote minimum standards via mechanisms such as the Information and Consultation Regulations.
John Forth, Researcher at NIESR and one of the report's authors, says: "Across Europe workers rely on trades unions, or statutory bodies like the Works Councils, to represent their concerns to employers at the workplace. The European Union views these forms of worker representation as crucial in ensuring effective social dialogue at the workplace. But the variation in representation across countries raises concerns about the effectiveness of current arrangements. Workers in Nordic countries are well-represented compared to those in southern Europe. The UK also has low levels of representation which could be enhanced through appropriate policy measures"
The report also suggests that worker representation can have benefits, by providing a channel for employees' discontent which can, in turn, reduce employee turnover when problems arise at work.