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The phrase workers’ participation is used loosely to encompass various forms of workers’ participation in decision making, usually at the enterprise level. They complement other forms that may exist at the industrial or sectoral level and the national level, such as bodies for tripartite cooperation. The types of workers’ participation arrangement differ widely with regard to their functions and powers, ranging from informal individual employee suggestion schemes to co-determination of certain matters by workers’ representatives together with management. The mechanisms used for encouraging employee participation vary so widely that it is impossible to review them fully here. The main forms that have attracted recent interest, particularly in the field of work organization, are reviewed below; to these could be added the historical example of self-management by workers in former Yugoslavia. As particularly relevant today, joint safety and health committees are examined as a special form of workers’ participation within the larger labour relations context.

The idea of workers’ participation arose in Europe, where collective bargaining has usually been at the branch or industry level; this often left a gap of employee representation at the enterprise or plant level, which became filled by bodies such as works councils, works committees, enterprise committees and so forth. Many developing countries have also adopted legislative initiatives with a view to having works councils or similar structures set up (e.g., Pakistan, Thailand, Zimbabwe) as a means of promoting labour-management cooperation. The relationship of these bodies to trade unions and collective bargaining has been the subject of considerable legislation and negotiation. This is reflected in a provision of the ILO Workers’ Representatives Convention, 1971 (No. 135), which states that where both trade union representatives and elected representatives exist in the same undertaking, measures shall be taken to ensure that the existence of those representatives is not used to undermine the position of the trade union (Article 5).

Direct Participation

Workers may participate in decision making either directly themselves or indirectly through their representatives – trade unions or elected employee representatives. Since the 1980s, there has been a spread of direct participation by workers, if the term participation is understood as the exercise of any influence on their work or how it is to be carried out. Thus workers may “participate” in work-related decisions not only when there is an institution, such as a quality circle, at the workplace. Accordingly, a simple exercise of work enrichment may be a form of promoting direct participation of workers.

Direct participation may be on an individual basis – for example, through suggestion schemes or “enriched” work. It may also be on a group basis – for example, in quality circles or similar small-group activities. Teamwork in itself constitutes a form of group-based direct participation. Direct participation may be integrated into decisions about daily work, or it may take place outside daily work, such as in a voluntary quality circle that cuts across the group structure habitually used. Direct participation may also be “consultative” or “deliberative”; research by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has explored this particular aspect in some detail (Regalia and Gill 1996). With consultative participation, employees are encouraged and enabled, either as individuals or members of a group, to make their views known, but it is up to management to accept or reject their proposals. Deliberative participation, on the other hand, places some of traditional management responsibility in the employees’ hands, as in the case of teamworking or semi-autonomous work groups wherein some authority has been delegated to the workers.

Works Councils and Similar Structures; Co-determination

The term works councils describes arrangements for the represen-tation of employees, usually at the plant level although they also exist at higher levels (company, group of companies, industry, European Union). The relationship to trade unions is often delineated by legislation or clarified by collective agreement, but tensions between these institutions sometimes remain all the same. Extensive use of works councils, sometimes called workers’ committees, cooperation committees or otherwise, is well established in a number of European countries, such as Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands and, under the impetus of Directive No. 94/45/EC of 1994 on European works councils, can be anticipated to spread in that region for large enterprises. Several Central and Eastern European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, have enacted legislation to encourage the emergence of works councils. They are found as well in some countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America; part of the post-apartheid labour law reform in South Africa, for instance, included establishing a form of works councils alongside trade union structures.

The possible powers of works councils are best illustrated by the example of Germany, although in some ways it is a unique case. Weiss (1992) describes the works council in that country as the form of institutionalized representation of interests for employees within an establishment. A works council enjoys certain rights to information, ...

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