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AGREEMENT NUMBER - VS/2020/0101 Expanding and Improving Workplace Democracy as a Prerequisite for Humanising Labour and the Work Environment – DIRECT II



Workplace democracy has been an important focus of European trade union since the 1980s.  There are several main forms of workers’ participation, which have been implemented as a means of improving the workplace democracy during the following 40 years, in particular financial participation, representative participation and direct participation.  It is an important focus of the European trade union movement (see ETUC Resolution Strategy for More Democracy at Work) and of employers’ and management activities, expanding the use of forms of direct and indirect democracy as managerial approaches.

Workplace democracy, especially direct workers’ participation in governance (management), besides improving labour motivation and efficiency of production/services, can also be used to humanise work and the working environment and also increase job satisfaction and workforce development. It is a system of work organisation that allows for the input of employees into the day-to-day operations of the enterprise. It can include both consultation and delegation arrangements in the workplace, which includes both individual and group participation. The promotion of direct participation can be a competitive strategy for an enterprise, contributing to continued economic recovery within the EU and making European enterprises more competitive in the global marketplace by been more efficient, lowering production costs, allowing for greater innovation and providing for increased commitment among employees. Many previous studies have shown that all forms of workplace democracy, especially direct participation in governance, result in improved worker motivation and increased productivity.

With the rapid advance and application of digital technologies EU workplaces are changing rapidly. To stay competitive, to retain market share and, most importantly, maintain employment levels, companies and workers must adapt to these changes. In this context, digitalisation refers to integration and application of different digital technologies and innovations across the social and economic fields, such as: computerisation, automation, robotics, manufacturing technologies, social media, etc.

When the need to stay competitive and profitable requires enterprises to introduce new technologies, either in manufacturing or service business sectors, this can result in significant organisational change that present management with a range of challenges. They are  concerning the reorganisation of enterprise and management structures, allowing greater autonomy of employees, investing in up-skilling of the workforce and/or recruiting  essential expertise,  requiring flexibility and co-operation from both sides (including workers’ representatives and trade unions), to prevent a ‘trial and error” approach to the introduction of the new technology.

Previous surveys and projects have led to the conclusion that direct participation is most often associated with a certain type of organisation of production and labour, such as  lean production, ‘Toyota’ type systems and others, mostly group forms of work organisation, that aim  to achieve  a reduction in the  cost of materials, energy, technological discipline, etc.  New forms of work organisation are tied to innovative technical and technological solutions, but can also be applied to more traditional technical and technological processes, that requires a high degree of autonomy for individual workers.

Only concentrating direct participation  within the context of management styles, without taking into account the level of employee satisfaction, work motivation and working conditions, can lead to increased work intensity (not always compensated by higher incomes ), exhaustion and "burn out", conflicts in the allocation of work  tasks, in some cases resulting in  a reduction of the workforce, redundancy or reassignment , as well as a  limitation on  workers' rights to  representation and protection of their interests (working hours, health and safety at work, remuneration, job security, etc.) including through  trade unions.

This does not mean a formal ban on trade unions or a restriction on forms of representative democracy (including information and consultation rights), nor is it confirmed by data from previous projects and studies. On the contrary, the strong engagement of workers with certain types of organisation of production and of labour and the high intensity of work can practically limit the scope for another representation.

Alternatively, direct participation in management, even in cases of the introduction of  new technologies, can improve efficiencies, productivity, better work organisation and commitment of the workforce, including opportunity for workers to give ideas for organisational innovation; contribute to improving workers qualifications and skills; humanise the working environment through, for example, the introduction of flexible working time; improved occupational health and safety; allow for flexibility in executing tasks, including job rotation and homeworking (where possible); as well as appropriate forms of remuneration relating to the introduction of new technologies.

Consequently, the introduction of new technologies allows management and employee representatives, working together, to make the choices best suited to their particular enterprise and business sector, such as the selection of hardware, the design and configuration of software, and the organisational changes required for the use of the technology systems selected.  The choices made can have important implications for the success of the technology change, its impact on employment levels, the reorganisation of the workforce, the skill needs and the quality of working life.

Achieving such a work environment would be more effective if it is associated with forms of representative participation, such as provision of information and consultation by management, health and safety committees, options for advisory or full participation in supervisory or management bodies etc., as well as representation by trade unions for the process of collective bargaining.

It is possible to conclude from the findings of the DIRECT project (2017-2018) ( that direct participation in management, even when viewed more as a managerial approach, is more widespread and produces better results for both employers and employees in enterprises with a good system of industrial relations and representative participation (i.e. trade union organisations, collective agreements and active systems for information and consultation, for example, works councils).