The role of the works council in Germany: A quick guide
Published on February 6, 2024
If you’ve recently started working in Germany, you might have heard the word Betriebsrat at your new workplace. Betriebsrat means “works council,” and depending on where you call home, you may or may not be familiar with the term. In European countries like Germany, Austria, Spain and France, works councils have been an important part of work environments for years. But other countries, like the U.S., don’t really have an equivalent.
In this quick guide, we’ll explain the role of the works councils in Germany. We’ll also review how they’re formed and elected, and how they differ from workers’ unions. Wondering whether a works council could benefit your working environment? We’ll also list out some of the potential benefits and disadvantages.
The role of the works council in Germany is to bridge the gap between employer and employees. The council’s selected members vouch for workers’ interests by advocating for better pay and health benefits. They also draw attention to problems in the workplace or work culture that need to be addressed.
Because they are consulted on critical decisions that concern the company and have a right to co-determination, the works council is informed about all personnel and other changes before management makes any major decisions.
It’s technically mandatory for companies in Germany with more than five employees to install a works council. But there’s a caveat here, as the works council must be created and elected by the employees. If they don’t take advantage of their right, the employer doesn’t face any legal consequences.
If the Betriebsrat is responsible for workers’ rights, what is the difference between works councils and workers’ unions? It’s true that both communicate with employers on behalf of employees, but unions usually operate nationally and not on a company-specific basis.
There are Gewerkschaften (unions) for different lines of work in Germany, including railway transit, the police force and education. While the works council generally operates for members of the same company, the union is responsible for representing a whole working sector within the German state.
Some prominent unions in Germany include:
The responsibility to form a works council lies at the hands of the employees of a company.
To get the election process started, they must first establish that a works council is needed within a company. After that, it’s the employer’s job to provide information about candidates up for election. Every employee older than 16 is allowed to vote — no matter if they are working full-time or on a Minijob basis — and every employee over the age of 18 can be elected. The elections take place every four years between March and May.
Although the formation of a works council can bring some advantages for employees (like higher pay), in some cases workers might not see the need for it and no Betriebsrat is formed.
A unified voice in negotiations between management and workers. The chance for higher pay. Protection against possible injustice and arbitrary terminations. As you can see, the benefits of a works council for employees are numerous and varied. But there are also some potential disadvantages — mainly on the employer’s side, admittedly.
While employers also benefit from improved communication with their workers, they’re also responsible for all costs connected with the works council, which could lower the company’s profits. Further, decisions like terminating employees can take longer if there’s no unified opinion on the matter. And it may be the case that not all employees conform to the opinions of the works council, but must live with the consequences of the council’s decisions.
Works councils in Germany exist to represent employees’ interests and give them a unified voice in decisions concerning company matters. Just like a German course can help you communicate with your German colleagues and superiors more effectively, a works council exists to improve communication between management and workers.
Just remember: it’s not mandatory for employers to enforce the formation of a works council. It’s the employees’ responsibility to elect representatives in companies with more than five employees. There are several benefits for workers, like potential higher pay and support in navigating uncomfortable situations in the workplace. However, factors like cost and decision-making efficiency can be counted among the potential negative effects of a works council.