Bruno Demaître, ETUI Education Officer interviewed by Gabriele Guglielmi, Filcams Cgil International Policies Coordinator
What is your experience with EWC training?
I have been responsible for organising training for EWC members at the ETUI since 2007. Before that time, I was an EWC chairman myself in a company in the finance sector. The ETUI already started delivering training for EWCs as early as the 1990s, after the first Directive had been published. As the number of EWCs started to grow, the number of demands for training also increased gradually. The right to training as included in the 2009 recast Directive gave a further boost. Today, the ETUI Education EWC team consists of two fulltime Education Officers, two administrative assistants and an external network of about 15 specialised trainers. Together, we cover close to 50 demands every year, organise on average 5 “open” seminars (topical training with EWC members from different companies and sectors) and assist European and national trade union federations with their own initiatives. Since 2017 we also started to offer a quite intense online course “EWCs Rules of the Game”, of which we organised 7 English and one French versions to date for a total of more than 900 participants.
Unfortunately, despite the legal right to training, the practice is still very different. The large-scale survey of the functioning of EWCs and SE Works Councils organised by the ETUI in 2018 shows that up to 40% of all EWC members did not get any training in the last three years. In some cases, training is limited to English language courses or additional presentations by the management only. For those who do get real training, it can vary from half a day occasionally to five days for members and substitutes each year. The average of what the ETUI delivers is around 1,5 days.
Most requests concern basic aspects, such as understanding the legal framework, exploring the potential, writing internal rules or finding out how information and consultation could work. With more experienced EWCs we can go deeper into more specialised themes. Financial analysis is a topic that returns frequently, but we have also covered subjects such as occupational health and safety, intercultural cooperation, conflict management and corporate social responsibility.
In general, there is sufficient enthusiasm and interest among EWC members to take part in training courses. Nevertheless, expectations may be very different and sometimes contradictory. For example, we recently had a situation where the Select Committee had asked for a team building programme, intended to reduce the many tensions within the EWC. Unfortunately, a large part of the representatives felt that there was no need for this at all and preferred a more academic approach with mainly technical presentations, so the training was cancelled. Another recurring problem is the expectation of some people that training will help them to impose their personal vision on the whole EWC, ignoring the diversity of opinions that exists within that body. In my opinion, training should invite to discover and discuss that diversity, to look for what the members have in common and develop a truly European approach together.
ETUFs recently issued some recommendations linked to Covid19: could you please explain and comment them?
EWCs are facing a variety of challenges in this period. It is of course impossible to organise physical meetings, but, at the same time, there is a need for more consultation. There are questions about the functioning of the body itself, but much more important is the impact of the pandemic on the company and the workers. In some sectors, production and sales have almost completely ceased or at least declined sharply (e.g. tourism and the hospitality industry). In other sectors production and services can continue, but workplace organisation needs to be reviewed by ensuring social distancing and/or introducing or extending home office. Not to mention the particularly precarious situation in hospitals and nursing homes. Whatever the situation is, information, consultation and participation of workers at all levels, including the European Works Council is crucial. The recommendations of the European Trade Union Federations (ETUF) are intended to provide guidelines for EWC members on how to safeguard their rights in these exceptional circumstances.
The document contains 7 very concrete instructions. The first one concerns the organisation of the regular meetings. In some cases, management might try to simply cancel what was planned, but the current measures must not be used as an excuse for not holding any meeting at all this year. Nor should it be the pretext for introducing videoconferencing as a permanent alternative for face-to-face meetings. Therefore, management should guarantee that the ordinary meeting will be organised as soon as the crisis is over. The same goes for training by the way.
5 recommendations refer to managing the COVID19 situation. One or even several online extraordinary meetings should be organised to discuss the impact on the company and its employees. An important condition, however, is that separate regulations must be drawn up to make sure that videoconferencing is the exception and not the rule. It is also important to make sure that this can be done in optimal circumstances, including access to appropriate equipment and support by interpreters. As long as the crisis lasts, management should provide regular written updates, EWC members should systematically share information on local measures and social dialogue and collective bargaining should be in the heart of how the company deals with these unprecedented circumstances. As soon as the medical emergency is over, an extraordinary physical meeting should be organised to discuss the further social and economic consequences.
Finally, the seventh recommendation is actually a repetition of what is always good advice: keep in touch with your European federation at all times. They can provide the EWC with information on what is happening in other companies and which sector-specific and country-specific measures are in place. When management does not offer all employees the same protection, uses the crisis as an excuse to carry out collective redundancies or refuses to engage into a proper social dialogue, the ETUF can ensure a coordinated approach in all countries where the company operates. It is also an excellent way of sharing good practices.
As a whole, the recommendations provide good guidance for European worker representatives in these difficult times. There is a real risk that the current crisis will widen the gap between EWCs where things are going relatively well and those where management is not interested in qualitative dialogue anyway. Worker representatives should not be tempted to give in to a weakening of their rights because of the pandemic. On the contrary, it is precisely in times of crisis that they should make full use of their rights and push the boundaries of international solidarity. While we are almost locked up in our homes and, of course, our main concerns are for our immediate surroundings, we should not lose sight of what is happening elsewhere and use all resources we have to ensure the rights and protection of workers everywhere. I am convinced that the recommendations of the ETUFs will not only help EWC members in developing their strategy, but can also be a wake-up call for those who may have been too focused on local issues in these difficult times.
Currently EWC meetings could only be online: how does it work and what will be the consequences in the future.
As clearly stated in the ETUF recommendations, online meetings should be the exception and require specific regulations. Indeed, face-to-face meetings cannot simply be replaced by videoconferences. Admittedly, online solutions are cheaper, more flexible and less time-consuming. But they also have many drawbacks. The level of interactivity will always be much less. You cannot stay focused for hours in front of a screen. Poor internet connection or inappropriate devices can seriously disturb the whole experience. How do you ensure simultaneous interpretation in all necessary languages? No place or time for informal contacts or small talk. And the list is much longer still.
Nevertheless, in exceptional circumstances such as these, videoconferences do offer the possibility to organise a proper dialogue and keep the EWC alive. They must however meet a number of important criteria. The agenda of the meeting must be rather limited and focused, in this particular case the COVID19 crisis and how it is being handled in the company. Management must ensure that all members have access to good quality IT equipment (a computer, microphone, camera and internet connection) and choose high-performance technology. Furthermore, videoconferences should take place under the same conditions as a normal meeting, which means time for workers’ only preparation and debriefing, support by professional interpreters and participation of experts.
It will require a lot of discipline of both workers and employers to make this work. Online meetings involve many things that are not so obvious. For instance, the different time zones in which the participants reside must be taken into account when announcing the start and end hours. Everyone should be given proper instructions on how to use the technology. The chosen software may not work on every device. But if everything is properly prepared and qualitative solutions are chosen, everyone will quickly get used to it. It may be tempting to limit the number of participants, for example by meeting only with the Select Committee. That can indeed be a solution to make things run a little smoother, but it should always be the choice of the worker representatives themselves who should participate. In fact, if nobody needs to travel or stay abroad for a long time, this could also be a good occasion to include not only all full members, but also the deputies in the meeting.
In the longer term, as video conferencing becomes established, it may well be that it will be used even more often. Again, we must avoid that it completely replaces face-to-face meetings, but it can allow for more frequent communication. The most important condition is that it must be the EWC itself that can decide how and when they want to use it.
Are you planning online training offers for EWCs
Absolutely! The existing course “EWCs Rules of the Game” will continue to be repeated regularly in English and French and will soon be available in Italian, Spanish and German as well. The ETUI online offer includes more courses which might be interesting for EWC members, such as “English for trade unionists” and “the EU for trade unionists”. More is being prepared. In the short term, we are planning webinar style courses on a selection of topics such as confidentiality, local systems of worker representation and how to prepare for the establishment of a EWC. In the longer term, these webinars could be the basis for more extended learning pathways. For the benefit of trade union officers, we are considering the development of a “Master Class for EWC Coordinators” in cooperation with the ETUFs.
For company groups, we are systematically offering online training as an alternative for face-to-face courses as long as this crisis period continues. The methodology and content are adapted to the format and support is provided by the same technical team that also ensures the “EWCs Rules of the Game” course.
As is often the case, a crisis period not only causes great difficulties, but also forces us to look for new and creative solutions. These are challenging times indeed!