Worker participation - Switzerland

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Kevin Teoh, Juliet Hassard, and Tom Cox , Birkbeck College, University of London.

Introduction

The involvement of workers in management decision making processes is known as ‘worker participation’. This goes beyond workers being involved for consultative or informational process, but rather gives them authority to make decisions [1]. This can take the form of either direct or indirect participation. The former refers to individual involvement, whilst in the latter representatives of the individual are involved in the decision making process.

This article focuses on informational and consultation process that workers are involved in during the management process. This will be examined on three levels: cross-industry, sectoral and company levels. It describes both direct and indirect participation forms with a focus on formal participation structures. An overview of methods of worker participation can be found in Methods and effects of worker participation and Occupational safety and health management systems and workers’ participation.

Regulatory framework for worker participation

Employee participation has not received much regulatory attention in Switzerland. Despite international regulatory provisions and directives, Switzerland chooses not to adopt them [2][3]. This includes the ratification of Council Directive 2001/86/EC [4] which refers to employee participation, and complements the Statute on the European Company with regard to the involvement of employees. Nevertheless, there is some legal framework for employees to participate in their companies should they desire to, and for representation at board level in state owned enterprises [5] [6] [7].

Information and consultation

At the international level, regulatory provisions on worker participation are contained in Article 19 of ILO Convention C-155 [8]. Article 12 of the (non-binding) ILO Recommendation R-164 [9] describes more specific rights and possibilities for employees and their representatives with respect to worker participation. Recommendation R-129 contains general recommendations on communication between employers and workers [10]. Convention C155, and the relevant recommendations, are not ratified by Switzerland [2].

The European Directive 2002/14/EC [11] establishes a general legal framework for informing and consulting employees in the European Community. The directive makes it a requirement for employers to inform and consult employees via the workers’ representatives in the company, in three specific areas:

  • the recent and probable development of the undertaking's or the establishment's activities and economic situation;
  • the situation, structure and probable development of employment and any anticipatory measures envisaged;
  • decisions likely to lead to substantial changes in work organisation or in contractual relations.

Switzerland, as a non-member of the EU they were not required to, and did not transpose this directive into law. Similarly, the main legal source Legislation for worker information and consultation on OSH on a European level (the OSH Framework Directive 89/391/EEC [12]) was not transposed into Swiss law. However, in preparation for the possibility of joining the European Union, they passed the Federal Law on Worker Information and Participation (Mitwirkungsgesetz) on the 17th of December 1993 which provided the right to information and some right to consultation should employees demand it [13].

The Telecommunications Enterprise Act of 1997 [7], the Swiss Postal Act 2010 [6] and the Railway Act 1998 [5] specify the need for employee representation in state owned enterprises, although there is no mention of a need to represent employees’ OSH interests.

OSH and worker participation

The Swiss have a strong tradition of social dialogue that is carried out through formal and informal networks. Both employer associations and trade unions are routinely involved in the shaping of public policy [14]. At the sectoral level, industries are encouraged to use social dialogue to develop their own solutions in the reduction of health and safety risks. And although collective agreements at sector levels cover almost half the Swiss workforce, they do not focus occupational safety, health or diseases. At the company level employees have little participation and representation, with work councils not being obligatory and weakening trade union involvement.

Cross-industry level

The Unfallversicherungsgesetzes 1981- the Accident Insurance Act designates power to the Federal Coordination Commission for Occupational Safety (EKAS) as the central coordinating body for health and safety in the workplace [15]. Directives issues by EKAS are monitored in companies through the Cantons, the Swiss Accident Insurance Fund (Suva) and the Secretariat of the State and the Economy (SECO) [16]. Both EKAS and Suva compensate for the absence of an official institute of health and safety in Switzerland [17]. These bodies are systematically included at the legislative level by the state within the framework of tripartite dialogue [18]. In particular, both EKAS and SUVA’s management consist of tripartite representation from the government, employers and employees [19][20].

Federal Coordination Commission for Occupational Safety (EKAS)

The Eidgenössische Koordinationskommission für Arbeitssicherheit (EKAS), or the Federal Coordination Commission for Occupational Safety is the central information and coordination office for safety and health at work. It is tasked by the Federal Council to coordinate preventative measures and to execute uniform application of the rules [19].

Composition EKAS consists of 11 individuals including its chairperson. By law the President must come from Suva. Employers and employees are represented by two delegates each from their associations. The private and health insurance sector, Suva, SECO, and the Cantons also put forward proposed members for consideration. The final decision and appointment is conducted by the Swiss Federal Council [19].

Responsibility The duties and responsibilities of EKAS are defined in the Accident Insurance Act 1981 (Unfallversicherungsgesetzes) [15] and the Regulation on the Prevention of Accidents and Occupational Diseases 1983 (Verordnung über die Unfallverhütung) [21].The EKAS meets four times a year to work on business regulations approved by the Federal Council. The EKAS and its offices are supported in their work by Suva, the SECO, the IVA, professional organisations along with other special bodies.

The central task of EKAS is to protect workers against possible occupational accidents and diseases. Among the key duties of EKAS is to create and review guidelines on the prevention and management of occupational accidents and diseases, to promote safety at all levels in the workplace, to coordinate the training of specialists in occupational safety and the implementation of regulations on the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases. The decisions of the EKAS are binding.

Social Partners The EKAS functions as a hub and has built over the years a strong network with various private and government agencies, institutions and organizations. These include [19]:

  • Executive bodies: Suva; Inter-Cantonal Association for Employee Protection (IVA); Cantons; SECO; professional organizations
  • Insurances: Suva; Swiss Insurance Association (SVV); individual private insurances; santésuisse
  • Social partners: Employers: Swiss Employers Association, Swiss Trade Association
  • Trade Unions: Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (SGB); Travail Suisse

Industry solutions and operating groups

  • Occupational safety specialist groups: Suissepro; Swiss Society for Occupational Safety (SGAS); Swiss Society for Hygiene (SGAH); Swiss Society of Occupational Medicine (SGARM); Swiss Society of Ergonomics (SwissErgo); Study Group on Health in Industry, Services and Commercial (SGIG); Romand Group of Medicine, Hygiene and Safety at Work (GRMST)
  • Federal Agencies: Federal Office of Public Health (BAG); Federal Office of Justice (BJ); SECO - Directorate of Economic Policy, Federal Chancellery
  • International organizations: International Association Social Security Association (ISSA); European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA)

Occupational doctors; hygienists, safety specialists, safety engineers

SUVA- Swiss Accident Insurance Fund

Suva- the Schweizerische Unfallversicherungsanstalt in German, translates to the Swiss Accident Insurance Fund. Under public law, it is a financially independent non-profit body that focuses on prevention, rehabilitation and insurance. It insures approximately 118,000 companies and 1.9 million employees against workplace accidents and occupational diseases, and has a government mandate to manage the military’s insurance [20]. As social protection and social security in Switzerland is ensured by law through insurance [22]. Suva as an insurance fund plays a pivotal role in maintaining workplace health and safety legislation through insurance.

Composition The Board of Directors at Suva is its supreme executive body, built on a social partnership model. It comprises of 40 Directors. Eight directors are appointed to represent the Swiss Confederation. Employer and employee groups each provide 16 represents that provide an additional 32 directors to Suva. Appointments are made by the Federal Council for a period of six years [23].

From the Board of Directors eight members are elected into Suva’s Management Committee. This too is based on the social partnership model, with two representatives of the Swiss Confederation along with three employer and employee representatives each.

Responsibility Swiss Federal Law tasks it with issuing regulations on Suva’s organisation, approving accounting principles, determining reserves, provisions, annual administrative costs and expenditures in relation to the prevention of accident and occupational diseases. The Board of Directors are also responsible for examining annual reports and financial statements. The issuing and approval of premium insurance rates are also set by the Board of Directors.

The Management Committee is elected by the Board of Directors to help it function more efficiently. It is tasked with overseeing the management and operations of Suva. It makes decisions on corporate strategy and ensures appropriate risk management.

Role of Suva As a social welfare institute focusing on insurance, Suva enforces EKAS regulations surrounding health and safety in the workplace. It also focuses on the prevention and rehabilitation of occupational accidents and diseases. Through effective prevention and successful rehabilitation Suva seeks to reduce insurance premiums and costs for Swiss enterprises. As a non-profit organisation, income is translated into additional expenditure in the work of prevention and rehabilitation, and the reduction of insurance premiums.

Sustainable solutions and interventions are generated to obtain as wide an acceptance as possible. Recent high visibility campaigns include ‘Vision 250’, a campaign to half the number of serious injuries and fatalities in the workplace between 2010 and 2020 [24]; ‘Stolpen.ch’, targeting trips in the workplace; and an interactive campaign against asbestos [23].

Psychosocial Hazards and Disease Psychosocial illnesses, including stress and burnout, are currently not recognised as occupational diseases by federal legislation or by Suva [25] [26]. This means that there is no legislation protecting employees from psychosocial hazards, and it is extremely difficult for employees to seek compensation from Suva or other insurances for stress. This is as occupational diseases are considered pathology [25]. However, there have been attempts by Suva to review this process, although support from employee representatives has seen resistance from employers. Despite this, Suva does offer courses and information on the prevention of psychosocial issues in the workplace [27].


Sectoral level

Social dialogue at the sectoral level is a reflection of the social partnership in Switzerland [22]. This is built on two aspects. The first are sector solutions, encouraged by EKAS, that reflect the social protection and security encouraged through regulations and legislation. The second are the collective agreements between trade unions and employers that cover around half of the employees in Switzerland [28].

Sectoral Solutions Regulation on the Prevention of Accidents and Occupational Diseases 1983 (Articles 3-10) [21] specify the legal obligation of the employer to identify all health and safety risks of towards their employees in the workplace, and to take the necessary preventative measures towards them. EKAS Directive 6508 [29] builds on this by directing employers to involve appropriate occupational safety specialists and physicians, and to encourage the novel solutions in the prevention of occupational accidents, diseases and health.

Within this, specific sector industrial solutions (Branchenlösungen) are encouraged as a means for companies within a sector to face OSH challenges together [30]. These are developed by Employer Associations, supported by social partners and in cooperation with OSH specialists [31]. It consists of an industry specific safety handbook where they specify their objectives, and the steps taken within the solution. This includes the role of the employers, managers and employees; the information and training required along with organisations who can deliver this; method of identification hazards and risks; health concerns; and auditing and control of the solution.

Sectoral solutions are certified by EKAS and placed on their website for the information to be shared. This is in part to support the SMEs in different sectors [31]. A review of the completed Branchenlösungen solutions on the EKAS website [30] by the current authors found that sectoral groups focused on various health and safety outcomes, including: accidents, musculoskeletal disorders, falls, and loss of working time amongst others. However, only two out of the 63 groups mentioned psychosocial outcomes- the Non-Profit Organisation Sector (bullying) and the Road Maintenance Services Sector (psychological health).

For example, the Road Maintenance Services Sector’s attempts on improving psychological health of its workers are part of a wider focus including accidents (e.g. falls and tool injuries), ergonomical hazards, shift works, exposure to chemicals, noise, and vibration [30]. The proposed 5 year plan has an annual budget that proposes training both employees and managers. It also encourages more involvement for employees in unions, along with the right to timely information and consultation. Analysis of occupational diseases and workplace-related illness should be conduceted, with relevant information provided on job instructions, fact sheets, and checklists, as well as the participation of OSH specialists. It also provides information on who should implement and audit changes and progress.

Collective Labour Agreements Swiss industrial relations have typically been stable and peaceful. This is part due to labour peace clauses that are inserted into most collective agreements (‘Gesamtarbeitsvertrag’/GAV). The clauses establish arbitrary institutions and prohibit unilateral action by social partners [28]. GAVs between employer associations and trade unions are an essential instrument in industrial relations and social dialogue at the sectoral level [32]. They typically regulate labour issues, such as remuneration, procedural rules and working time between employers and employees within a given sector [33]. At the request of the negotiating parties the Federal Government can declare GAVs legally binding to a whole sector [3]. Despite only 21% of employees in Switzerland being members of trade unions, almost 50% of all employees are covered by a GAV [32]. However, occupational safety and health issues are rarely addressed in collective agreements.

Changes in the industrial relations landscape have seen the more powerful employer associations push their agenda for more flexibility with labour rights in the workplace [28]. This allows them adjust quicker to competitive domestic and international demands. International comparisons with other countries have shown Swiss employers to be highly organised [34]. Employers are typically represented by individual sectoral federations that form part of the bigger employer association. This, together with a weakening trade unions struggling with declining membership numbers, has led to collective bargaining increasingly being transferred from sectoral to company level. Especially in key labour areas such as working time and wages [28]. This has already occurred in the clothing and chemical industries (in 1996), banking (1997), media printing (1999), and watch-making (2001).

It is important to note that there are significant differences in terms of GAVs between different sectors [32]. Despite the strength of employer associations, the power dynamics between employers and employees is sector dependent. Employers of the export orientated sectors generally have more power than those focusing on the domestic markets. Another distinction is reliance on skilled workers, with employers in sectors reliant on them having less power than those that use unskilled workers [28] [32]. The differences are evident in wage levels across sectors, with the mean wage of the textile and hotel industry being 62% and 51% of the mean wage in the chemical industry [35]. Between the private and public sectors, employees in public or government-linked sectors (i.e. postal service, railways, and telecommunications) have stronger and more protective GAVs [32].

Company level

As Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, it is not subject to the EU Directive on National Works Councils and, therefore, there is no right to National Works Councils in Switzerland [36]. The network of works councils in Switzerland is much thinner and fragmented in comparison to EU member countries [28]. In part this is due to competing trade unions and employee groups. As a result, worker representation at the company level is quite low, although there are exceptions in the chemical, engineering and the media printing industries [28].

Although most Swiss companies are not affected by EU regulations which Switzerland has not transposed, approximately 40 out of 100 Swiss Multi-National Companies (MNCs) have set up Work Councils for their staff in Switzerland [[37]. This is in part due to them having to set up such councils for their operations in other EU Member States, and for consistency or good practice have chosen to also do so in Switzerland. Examples of these companies include Nestle, Novartis and Roche.

Legislation states that participation at company level is only possible when requested by employees within companies that have more than 50 employees [13]. This however only extends to employers having to inform and not consult with employees, although there is a provision making an exception for OSH matters. Employers can also appoint safety representatives from their employees [21]. In some high risk sectors such as forestry, construction, and maintenance this is compulsory. Safety representatives must be trained and allowed to undertake their duties during their working time, and must receive suitable training to perform their responsibilities [3].

Indirect participation

Employee Representation

Employees in Switzerland do not have the automatic right for representation. Instead they have to initiate the process themselves and garner sufficient interest amongst employees before employers are obliged to act [3].

Regulatory framework The Mitwirkungsgesetz, or the Federal Law on Worker Information and Participation was passed on the 17th of December 1993 [13]. It acknowledges that employees have the right to timely and comprehensive information relevant for them to carry out their work. It applies to companies with more than 50 employees. Article 4 states that companies with less than 50 employees have the right to either appoint representatives, or to inform and consult with their employees directly. This framework is applicable to all enterprises in the private sector.

Composition The Act does not specify the size or number of representatives although the minimum number is three. Article 7 stipulates that the size and structure of the organisation must be taken into consideration, and, therefore, an agreement needs to be reached between employer and employees. Representatives can be members of the Trade Union, although they do not have to be. Trade Unions do not have a legal right to be represented at in the representation group [3].

Appointment of Representatives The appointment of employee representatives only occurs when requested by workers within the company, at which secret ballots are held to elect the representatives. This only has to occur when more than a fifth of the workforce requests for it. In companies that employ more than 500 employees, when more than 100 employees demand representation then elections must held regardless of the actual total number of employees. Elections are to be jointly organised by the employer and employees. Once elected, the term of office for employee representatives is not set by law [3].

Information and Consultation Switzerland was not required to transpose Directive 2002/14/EC, as it is not in the EU. Consequently, the rights of Swiss employees are far more restricted in relation to information and consultation. The Mitwirkungsgesetz only requires employers to inform employee representatives on the business trends and its impact on the company and employees once a year [38]. This is often only done when mass redundancies are conducted [33].

Employers are not required to consult employees prior to making decisions; they only have to explain decisions to employees once they have been made [38]. Consultation only occurs on issues surrounding:

  • Occupational health and safety (Accident Insurance Act 1981- Unfallversicherungsgesetzes) [15]
  • Collective redundancies (Articles 335d–335g of the Code of Obligations- Obligationenrechts)
  • Company mergers (Articles 333 & 333a of the Code of Obligations)
  • Working hours (Labour Law 1964 Arbeitsgesetze)
  • Pension provisions

Representatives are only allowed to carry out their duties during work hours if required by the task and their work allows it. Employers do not have to provide any form of resources, time or financial, to representatives.

Prevalence & Effectiveness In the engineering sector, a survey of the Swiss Metal and Clock Work Federation (SMUV) on work councils showed that the approximately 600 companies in the industry could be split into three equal categories [39]. About 200 companies had organised and professional work councils which could deal effectively with wage negotiations. A further 200 companies had weak work councils that could not deal with employers effectively and have no clear purpose. The remaining 200 companies do not have a work council at all.

The fact that Switzerland is not in the EU means it is excluded from most European surveys [40] [41] [42], which makes it difficult to examine the levels of employee participation in different levels- let alone on OSH matters. However, the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks [43] examined the existence and prevalence of formal employee representation relevant to health safety issues in 31 European countries. In Switzerland, 48% of companies had general employee representation, either a workplace union representative or a work council. Only Latvia, Portugal and Greece had a lower percentage. In comparison, the EU-27 countries had an average of 75%, whilst the average of all 31 countries was 72%. Crucially, unlike other countries it did not include health and safety representatives as expert advice informed the survey that these roles are not existent in Switzerland.

The same survey also showed that only 40% of enterprises in Switzerland informed employees on issues surrounding psychosocial risks and its respective impact on health and safety, which is below the 52% average across Europe. On a related note, 73% of enterprises addressed OSH issues due to concerns raised by employees and their representative, a similar figure to the EU-27 average of 76%. The 39% of employers addressing psychosocial risks due to concerns from their workforce is slightly higher than the 36% of the EU-27 average.

Board Level Representation

There are no Swiss legal provisions advocating the participation of employees at board level of companies [44]. Therefore, this does not occur. Trade unions managed to organise a national referendum to amend the constitution to include employee representation in 1976. However, opposition from employer groups and centre-right parties led to a failure of this initiative, with 966,140 citizens voting against the proposal and 472,094 voting for the proposal [3].

This is not the case within state owned enterprises and the public sector. The Telecommunications Enterprise Act of 1997 [8], the Swiss Postal Act 2010 [7] and the Railway Act 1998 [6] are among the legislation that specify the need for employee representation amongst the Board of Directors. This allows employees to be represented at company boards, facilitating communication between employees and senior management. Notable organisations which have this are the Swiss Federal Railways and the Swiss Postal Service who both have two employee representatives in a board of nine directors [45] [46], and Swisscom (telecommunications) who have two employees representatives amongst their ten Directors [47]. OSH issues are not explicitly stated as an issue taken up by employee representatives.

Trade union delegation

Trade unions representatives act on behalf of member employees within a company in dealing with the employer. Despite their steady decline, they have an important role in the negotiations of collective agreements (GAVs), which are increasingly being conducted at company instead of sectoral level [28] [32]. However, some have argued that trade unions have little purpose left in Switzerland [36].

Powers Under Article 357a of the Swiss Code of Obligations (Obligationenrecht1911) [48], trade unions who are party to a GAV have the authority ensure the compliance of all parties in the agreement. However, in doing so they have a duty to maintain harmonious industrial relations and in particular to refrain from any hostile action on regulated matters.

Relationship with Councils Swiss trade unions do not have a strong relationship with work councils, unlike other European countries like France, Spain and Italy [49]. There is no requirement that trade unions be represented within work councils; although in companies where there is a strong trade union membership there will likely be representation in work councils. Despite this many trade unions see the passing of the Information and Participation Act [36] which allows employers to deal directly with the legally weaker work councils as further attempt to undermine the unions [28]. Trade unions are also brought into the dialogue when there is conflict between work councils and employers [3].

Evolving Role In attempt to remain relevant within the social dialogue scene, trade unions have sought to be more prominent with the legislation and direct democratic process [50] and to become the primary economic oppositional force in Switzerland [49]. This does mean a focus at national and sectoral level with less emphasis on the company level. In the past 15 years this has led to trade unions working together to launch referendums and blocking plans that allow more flexibility in labour laws, liberalise the energy market, reduce employment benefits, and retrench pension rights [51]. Ultimately, unions have been able to force the drafting of more labour friendly proposals by winning at referendums and applying pressure on parliament.

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Links to further reading

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER): Managing safety and health at work, European Risk Observatory Report, 2010. Available at: [42]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Worker representation and consultation on health and safety: An analysis of the findings of the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER), 2012, Available at:[43]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Healthy Workplaces Campaign 2012-13 – Working together for risk prevention, 2012, http://www.healthy-workplaces.eu/en/hw2012.

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Eurofound - European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Workplace employee representation in Europe, 2012. Available at: http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/htmlfiles/ef1214.htm

Contributors

Juliet Hassard