In a time of transformation of individual labour market trajectories and economic crisis, the debate about the capacity that workers have to influence their work and work organisation gains renewed attention. Work is very important both at the individual and social level as it potentially enables economic security, human development, socialisation and unleashes human potential and creativity. It should be “recognised as a matter of common interest, subject to public deliberation among participants presumed free and equal” (Lopes, 2015: 21). Employee participation can assume different forms, namely trade union representation through consultative committees and collective bargaining, workers assemblies and other mechanisms designed to provide channels for employee participation in organisational planning and decision. However, there is clear evidence that working life is deteriorating and labour market insecurity has been growing in many economies (Jaumotte et al., 2015; Eurofound, 2015a). In fact, according to the latest Eurobarometer on this topic, most respondents say working conditions in their country have deteriorated in the last 5 years (European Commission, 2014).
In the last decades, the process of economic globalization and neoliberal policies contributed to reconfigure labour market integration in many countries. These changes were accompanied by the contraction of welfare transfers due to the implementation of austerity policy packages in many countries. According to Sen (1999), some of these trends contributed to erode two crucial instrumental freedoms, indispensable to safeguarding decent working conditions: protective security and transparency guarantee. For example, Smith et al. (2008) compare two European cities (Bratislava and Krakow), examining the transformations of urban labour markets and observe the emergence of working poor (and the economic vulnerability they experience): “working poor are impelled to rely on more than capitalist labour processes, to engage in a diversity of income earning and livelihood activities with which to supplement earnings from primary employment” (2008: 306).
The calls for increased involvement and participation in the workplace derive from a growing emphasis on the need to ensure the protection of workers’ rights, as well as the recognition that corporate capitalism contributed to growing levels of inequality and neglected employee representation and voice (Dahl, 1985). In fact, a recent IMF discussion note alerts to the fact that weaker labour market institutions (like trade unions) can “limit workers’ influence on redistributive policies, thus contributing to the rise of net income inequality” (Jaumotte et al., 2015: 5). Historically, even across advanced economies, wages remain low and stagnant for many workers, a situation that further contributes to economic deprivation and inequality (wages in many cases lagged behind productivity growth). Low wages and growing inequality will not only affect social justice goals, but will also produce adverse economic effects.
In order to assess how workers view their capacity to influence their work organisation, we turn now to the results of the European Working Conditions Survey with the aim of analysing the variation on organisational participation across European countries (Figure 1). In this survey, almost 44000 workers were interviewed in the 27 EU member countries (at that time), plus Norway, Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Turkey and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Figure 1 shows a mixed picture concerning the perceptions about the capacity to influence decisions in the workplace and being involved in improving the work organisation, with Northern European countries leading on both fronts.
Figure 1 – Organisational participation – able to influence and get involved in improving the work organisation
According to the Eurofound report ‘Work organisation and employee involvement in Europe’ (2013) – based on the results of the European Working Conditions Survey (2010) – the role of trade unions should not be neglected: “the strength of trade unions would therefore appear to be an important factor underlying national differences in employee involvement over and above differences in the demographic composition of the workforce and economic structure” (2013: 43). Trade unions have played a significant role in the working lives of many, although presently their influence appears to be declining (accompanied by a downward trend in membership). In the case of the UK, Wright (2011) argues that “labour market fragmentation, the international integration of product markets and production systems, and a single employer model of employment law have combined to make it more difficult for unions to maintain a strong presence in the British workplace” (2011: 13).
Figure 2 – Prevalence of indirect employee participation by country
Besides direct methods of participation, there are indirect forms of employee representative engagement, as shown in Figure 2: limited participation (opportunities and channels for participation are scarce); resource-oriented (resources such as training and external funding for employee representatives is relatively high; however, the time available for employee representation duties is relatively limited); information-oriented (employee representative is extensively provided with high-quality information and time for representative duties); and extensive participation (the organisation provides the employee representative with resources – training, expertise and time – as well as information relevant to interest representation and bargaining) (Eurofound, 2015b). According to these data, employee representatives are best equipped in terms of information and resources in Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and the Netherlands.
It is important to note that the degree of involvement and participation is certainly different across activities and organisations, as well as the level at which employees (or their representatives) are involved in management decisions. Other factors affecting employee involvement range from the nature of employment regulation, ownership characteristics to the type of management. In Figure 3, the focus is on managerial practices: the survey questions asked respondents if their manager/ supervisor respected them as a person and if they were encouraged to participate in important decisions.
Figure 3 – Managerial practices: your manager/ supervisor respects you as a person; encourages you to participate
These two variables – your manager/ supervisor respects you as a person; encourages you to participate – give us an indication of the subjective feelings of the respondents regarding the managerial practices they experience at work. It is important to note the diversity across European countries, which is similar to Figure 1 – again, Northern European economies dominate on what concerns good managerial practices, with Greece, Poland, Italy, France and Turkey scoring lower on what concerns the encouragement employees receive to participate in important decisions.
Furthermore, Summers and Hyman (2005) review the literature on employee participation and company performance and conclude that a combination of participation incentives and welfare measures (such as equal opportunities and family-friendly policies) appear to have a positive effect on organisational performance and quality of working life.
As mentioned before, there are a number of reasons that might help explain these results and, more generally, the cross-country differences in economic and political institutions – e.g., the work of Esping-Andersen (1990), The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, considers the relationship between labour markets and welfare regimes. In this work, it is argued that the welfare state is strongest where workers managed to mobilise to protect themselves against commodification. On the other hand, the literature on the varieties of capitalism is also useful to understand different types of industrial relations in ‘liberal market economies’- which include the U.K., U.S., Ireland, Canada – and ‘coordinated market economies’ – Austria, Germany, Sweden, Japan; this approach is actor-centred, with firms playing a central role in the capitalist economies. The differences between countries are understood in the context of formal and informal rules and it follows that “national political economies can be compared by reference to the way in which firms resolve the coordination problems they face” (Hall and Soskice, 2001: 8).
Overall, we believe it is important to further explore the causes of the differences observed at the national level but also to explore the degree and level at which employees participate in the organisational life, in order to better understand the impacts this has – both in contexts of high and low employee involvement – and the prospects for more participative and democratic workplaces.
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Wright, C. “What role for trade unions in future workplace relations?” ACAS Future of Workplace Relations discussion paper series, accessed online at http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/g/m/What_role_for_trade_unions_in_future_workplace_relations.pdf
 Pearson correlation: .574** (significant at 0.01 level).
 The high levels of involvement in Nordic countries are evident even when a wide range of factors relating to individual characteristics are controlled for.
 Trade unions, in the majority of advanced economies, have lost membership in recent decades, according to ICTWSS (2015) data.
 Pearson correlation: .273** (significant at 0.01 level).