Whoever talks about representative democracy cannot avoid the great saying by former U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln. In his famous Gettysburg Address on 19 November 1863 he stated that “Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.
Similarly, whenever we think of representative trade unions, one can say: “Trade Union – of the workers, by the workers, for the workers”. A trade union is an institution which needs to be constituted of the workers, governed or run by the workers and work for the workers. This is only possible when a trade union grows organically.
That is to say, a trade union must not be formed because of the pressure, request, intimidation or temptation from any person or organisation. Rather it must be formed because the workers themselves feel the necessity – and are aware of their rights and opportunities – to form or join a trade union. In this case, when workers are well educated about their rights and responsibilities and act self-determinedly, a trade union can serve its purpose. Moreover, since trade unions are a democratic set up, the activities or performance of trade unions become mature only over time. It is not reasonable to expect success overnight.
In political science it is said that it is not enough to have an educated, financially independent nation for ensuring a mature democracy. A culture of practicing democracy for a long time is also necessary to attain a fully developed democracy. In the same way, having a well-educated financially solvent workforce, being aware of their rights and responsibilities, is not always enough to ensure a high level of freedom of association. A long history of practicing and learning the essence of freedom of association in the industry is also needed, as experience from countries such as Germany, the U.K or the Netherlands shows.
From that point of view, the RMG (ready-made garments) and textiles industry of Bangladesh needs to gradually build an enabling environment to achieve better and healthier industrial relations over time, in which all the stakeholders – employers, workers, government and civil society – can work together.
Originating in Great Britain and continental Europe, trade unions emerged in many countries during the industrial revolution. A trade union is organized to serve the common interest of its workers in order to maintain or improve their conditions of employment.
Today, in a few countries, it is not uncommon to have more than 20 trade unions in one factory, employing around 500 workers or even less. In such cases, it is difficult to understand how the majority of the workers are effectively represented or how their demands can be efficiently negotiated with the management.
In other instances, trade unions are not formally institutionalized at the factory level but workers are still well represented. That is the interesting and effective workers’ representation system that exists in Germany: the dualism of the representation of workers’ interests by Works Councils on factory level on one hand, and on the other hand by a trade union outside the factory working or negotiating on behalf of the sector. This also helps providing a unified representation of workers in both the meso and macro levels.
Works Councils in Germany have a long history, with their origins in the early 1920s. Under German law, Works Councils are independent legally mandated bodies with the specific task of representing workers in the respective factory. Trade unions, on the other hand, are voluntarily organized, and have more comprehensive tasks, mainly to represent workers’ interests at the bargaining table in the regional or national level.
General labour agreements are made at the regional or national level by national unions and regional or national employer associations, whereas enterprises at the local level then meet with Works Councils to adjust these national agreements to local circumstances.
Works Council members are elected as workers representatives only and can be formed irrespective of whether workers are organized or not. They must ensure that employers abide by the duties arising from the labour laws and in principle enjoy the right to bargain collectively with the employer. Although not formally union bodies, union members normally play a key role within them.
The law provides the Works Council with two main types of rights: participation rights, where the Works Council must be informed and consulted about specific issues and can also make proposals to the employer; and co-determination rights, where decisions are co-determined by the management and the Works Council.
However, although it is formed of worker representatives only, the legal mandate of the Works Council is to work together with the employer “in a spirit of mutual trust … for the good of the employees and the establishment”.
In larger companies, the law also requires the setting up of another body – the Economic Committee. This committee is consulted on economic and financial issues but is chosen by the Works Council. The Works Council also forms part of the legally mandated Safety Committee and the management supervisory board.
Finally, whatever is the system, effective and responsible representation of the workers is a must to ensure healthy industrial relations which in turn can ensure better balanced and sustainable industrial growth, benefitting both the workers and the employers.
Seen from this perspective, healthy industrial relations are not an end in themselves: after a period of strong export-led growth, the longer-term economic development towards becoming a middle income country heavily depends on the growth of internal consumption and savings and hence also on the well-being of workers.
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