Taking counsel

  • 2006-01-11
  • By Iraida Zogaite [ Jurevicius, Balciunas & Bartkus ]
Lithuanian work councils more flexible way to protect employee interests

The concept "work council" conjures up various images for employers. Some are inherently opposed to anything that might expand employee influence over the workplace, and they see work councils as yet another effort to encroach upon employer prerogatives. Yet a case can be made that, even for employers who adamantly seek to retain maximum control, work councils may be beneficial.

Before the new Labor Code of the Republic of Lithuania came into force about a year ago, only trade unions had the right, and possibility, to represent and protect the interests of employees. The new Labor Code introduced work councils as an alternative possibility to represent and protect the rights of employees and represent their interests.

Certain preconditions exist for formation of work councils: They can only be formed at enterprises, institutions or organizations having no functioning trade union, or where the employee collective has not delegated representation and protection of their interests to a trade union of the appropriate sector of economic activity. Work councils can only be formed at workplaces with not be less than 20 employees.

The Labor Code deals with a number of areas pertaining to working conditions that are generally of interest to employers, such as: work and rest conditions, flexible working time, material liability and cases where fixed-term employment contracts may be concluded on other grounds than provided for in the law. Where an employer wishes to implement company wide policies in such matters and would like to have widespread employee support for his/her initiatives, he/she may find that having the support of a work council beneficial.

In Lithuania, obligations assumed through collective representation are mandatory for all employees working at the enterprise, regardless of whether a particular employee has expressed his will or not. This means, for example, that provisions of the concluded collective bargaining agreement will be compulsory for all employees. It also means that employees must follow the internal working regulations that have been developed and coordinated with the representatives of the employees and further approved by the employer.

Arguably, as a consequence of having a work council in place, the interests of the employer are potentially more secured in that there is a mechanism to bind the employees to certain company wide policies without the potential stigma of unilateral implementation 's and without the presence of the more intrusive and perhaps more potentially adversarial employer-union relationship.

Workers have the last say on this, as the question of whether or not to form a work council is the prerogative of employees. Unlike trade unions, work councils may function only within a specific enterprise and are not entitled to deal with issues that are under laws of exclusive competence of the trade unions. Thus the councils' powers to influence employers are limited to a certain extent. The formation, structure and principles of operation of work councils are less sophisticated compared with trade unions.

As with most things, the devil is in the details, and an effective relationship between employer and workers' council requires effort on both sides. Still, for some employers, it may be beneficial to have their employees linked together in a work council as a mechanism to empower both sides to resolve work organization issues of common interests expeditiously and effectively.

Jurevicius, Balciunas & Bartkus is a member of Baltic Legal Solutions, a pan-Baltic integrated legal network of law firms which includes Teder Glikman & Partnerid in Estonia and Kronbergs & Cukste in Latvia, dedicated to providing a quality 'one-stop shop' approach to clients' needs in the Baltics.