German Workers Council (GWOC) – some useful information for International Managers with German based offices

GWOC stands for German Workers Council and can also be abbreviated as GWC, GWoC, or simply WoC (Works Council). A works council is an elected representative body that advocates for the interests of a company’s employees and negotiates with the employer based on rights outlined in the Works Constitution Act. German works councils, with a history dating back to 1850, were reestablished after World War II and are currently governed by the German Works Constitution Act 1952 and the Co-determination Act 1976.

 

Works councils have various responsibilities, including ensuring compliance with laws, representing employee interests, and promoting workplace equality, safety, and diversity. Their fundamental rights include the right to information, consultation, negotiation, and co-determination on issues like hiring, termination, and working conditions.

Elections for works councils are mandatory for companies with at least 5 employees, and the council’s size depends on the employee base. Having a works council can bring benefits such as increased employee satisfaction, better communication, and improved productivity. Despite the legal requirement, elections are not always enforced, and the non-existence of a works council is not punishable by law. Companies are encouraged to voluntarily establish works councils to enhance workplace culture and employee engagement.

Definition

A workers council or works council is an elected representational body that serves as a voice for the company’s „shop floor“ workers. A works council represents the interests of the employees in the company and can negotiate on their behalf with the employer. To do this, it has rights that are laid down in the Works Constitution Act (BetrVerfG) and may not be ignored by the employer. These rights are called co-determination rights. This is why the work of works councils is also referred to as co-determination.

German works councils have a history dating back to 1850. The first works council law was the Workers Council Act (Betriebsrätegesetz) of 1920. Works councils were abolished under the Nazi Dictatorship from 1934 to 1945 and reestablished shortly after end of the war.

Today´s works councils are based on the German Works Constitution Act 1952, which provides a legal framework for co-determination of employees in the workplace. Additionally, the **Co-determination Act 1976** establishes the right for employees to participate in the management and decision-making processes of the company. One of the innovations was that works council members would now also have seats in private company`s board of directors.

In other European countries works councils also do exist, for example in UK, France, Spain, Italy, Austria or the Netherlands. But the legal foundations differ from country to country.

Responsibilities

A works council’s first and most important responsibility is to ensure compliance to laws, regulations, ordinances, accident prevention regulations, collective agreements and works agreements with regards to worker`s rights.

In addition the works council represents the interests of the employees vis-à-vis the employer. They take suggestions from the workforce and pass them on to the employer.

The works council also has the following tasks, among others:

  • Enforcing equality between women and men and the compatibility of family and career,
  • Promoting and securing employment in the company,
  • Promoting occupational health and safety measures and in-house environmental protection,
  • Promoting the integration of severely disabled persons and other persons requiring special protection,
  • Promote employment of older employees,
  • Promoting the integration of foreign employees and initiatives against racism and xenophobia in the workplace.

Works Councils` basic rights

The very fundamental rights of works council are:

  • Right to information. The works council is informed of all discussions related to matters within the Works Constitution Act, which outlines personnel, social, and economic rights.
  • Right to consultation. The works council is consulted about specific issues and can make proposals to management. The employer must listen to the views of each elected member.
  • Right to negotiation. The works council negotiates matters related to the Works Constitution Act before they become official company processes, policies, or actions. Sometimes, an employer’s decision may be considered legally invalid if the works council does not agree.
  • Right to co-determination. The works council has co-determination rights on issues related to employee hiring, transfers, termination, employee conduct policies, working hours, pay schemes, and restructuring measures.

Elections

In order to ensure representation of workers every company with at least 5 employees of which 3 are eligible candidates is required to establish a workers council. The works council should be composed of at least one person in companies up to 20 employees, and it is mandatory for the company to provide time and resources for the council to operate.

The size of the works council depends on the size of a company`s employee base. An employee base of up to 50 workers elects three works council members, up to 100 workers elect five, up to 200 elect seven and up to 400 workers elect nine members. If the works council has more than just one member the works council elects a chairman.

Size of Works Council by number of employees

No. of employees Works Council members
<20 1
21 – 50 3
51 – 100 5
101 – 200 7
201 – 400 9
401 bis 700 11
701 bis 1.000 13
1.001 bis 1.500 15
1.501 bis 2.000 17
2.001 bis 2.500 19
2.501 bis 3.000 21
3.001 bis 3.500 23
3.501 bis 4.000 25
4.001 bis 4.500 27
4.501 bis 5.000 29
5.001 bis 6.000 31
6.001 bis 7.000 33
7.001 bis 9.000 35

The time dedicated to works council matters is recorded as work time. Once a WoC member is finished with her WoC work the person returns to her usual company role.

If a company has more than 200 workers one of the works council members is exempted from her usual company duties to fully and solely concentrate on works council matters. This is called ”Works Council Gardening Leave”. The number of exempted WoC members depends on the company size (see table below). The members on gardening leave are elected by the WoC.

Number of WoC members on gardening leave by number of employees

No. of employees No. of WoC members on leave
200 bis 500 1
501 bis 900 2
901 bis 1500 3
1501 bis 2000 4
2001 bis 3000 5
3001 bis 4000 6
4001 bis 5000 7
5001 bis 6000 8
6001 bis 7000 9
7001 bis 8000 10
8001 bis 9000 11
8001 bis 10000 12
> 10000 12 + 1 for each 2000 workers

Despite the legal requirement, elections for the council are not always enforced. This means that if a company’s employees do not call for a vote, there will not be a workers council elected. The non-existence of a works council is not punishable by law.

Benefits

It is important to note that having a workers council can bring numerous benefits to the company, such as

  • Increased employee satisfaction
  • Better communication between management and employees
  • Increased productivity

Therefore, it is advisable for companies to voluntarily hold elections and form a workers council to improve their workplace culture and employee engagement.

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