Employee representation is the establishment of mechanisms enabling employees to be consulted and collectively bargain on their terms and conditions of employment. This formalisation of the employer-employee relationship creates channels for people at work to share information, communicate, consult, negotiate, protect their employment rights, and build positive relationships based on trust and cooperation.
Representatives are usually elected and they have many rights which are protected by law – such as the right to training and reasonable time off to carry out their union duties. This can be in the context of legally recognising an independent trade union for this purpose. Representation is also about maintaining good workforce relations and empowering workers and employees. It is the system by which individual employees – either union or non-union representatives – are given the right to speak on behalf of themselves and their colleagues on important issues in the workplace so that feelings and knowledge from the shop floor can be communicated back to management and vice versa.
Whilst independent unions may be the first organisations we think of when it comes to employee representation and collective bargaining, they are not the only system of workplace representation. Indeed, in the UK only 14% of private sector workers are members of a union, whereas 54% of public sector workers are and there is no legally mandated system of workplace representation. Alongside official unions recognised by the employer, there are also unofficial unions, joint consultative committees and work councils which bring together management and employees in the same forum. Workers may be represented at Board level and there are also professional associations and institutions, often bodies with self-regulatory legal status, which may also represent the interests of their members. Employees may also be represented in practice by informal leaders. However, only the trade union enjoys a legal status commensurate with its independence and as such is indispensable to any notion of employee representation.
The advantages to employees of unionisation are clear. Unionised employees earn more, have better holiday and sick pay and are less likely to be in an accident at work - union reps ensure health and safety is recognised and prioritised so there are up to 50% fewer accidents in unionised workplaces. But unionisation also has advantages for employers. There are fewer dismissals thanks to union reps being present at disciplinary cases and unionised workers are far less likely to quit since they have mechanisms to address grievances. This significantly reduces the cost of recruiting and training new employees. Fewer accidents also mean fewer days lost to absences. Representation provides a voice for workers who would not otherwise speak up about health and safety matters, and an alternative channel for managers to communicate with workers to prevent accidents. When representatives are trained on issues such as health and safety they are able to offer a perspective different to that of senior management.
Different organisations will have different needs and methods for consultation with staff. Small ones generally have more informal methods, often through direct contact with employees such as a manager walking around and talking to people. Nevertheless, this should not be used as a substitute for, or undermine collective agreements. Larger businesses lend themselves to more formal structures, the nature of which would be a subject for the bargaining agenda. Staff forums may include electronic communication (e-mails, newsletters and online questionnaires etc.), group meetings and one-on-one meetings. As in smaller firms, none of these tools should be deployed to sabotage existing agreements arising from collective bargaining.
However, it is recognised that while there should - wherever possible - be harmonious relationships between management and staff, there will not always be communality of interest, thus ensuring the need for collective bargaining at the appropriate juncture. Without freedom of association and respect for trade union rights, there can be no employee representation.
Recent developments in the labour market have seen a decline in long term employment and increased casualisation through outsourcing, use of agency workers or reliance on a self-employed workforce. The gig economy, where technology platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo connect customers with workers, has sped up this process. Whilst there are other reasons for needing a flexible workforce such as responding to changing demand and cases where this is beneficial for both employer and employee, there are also cases where this flexibility is forced on employees. This reduction in direct employment has reduced the job security and the negotiating position of some employees whilst making it harder for effective employee representation to emerge.
Businesses can use their political influence through lobbying, public relations and political donations to support policy and legislation which either undermines or enhances employment rights and employee representation either directly or through trade associations or other lobbying coalitions. Even if not engaged in influencing, businesses also have an incentive to ensure effective representation and employee consultation processes to protect themselves from being caught out by changes to legislation. Even though recent UK legislation has made strike action harder, the Labour Party has also committed to repealing the Trade Union Act should they be elected. There is therefore an advantage to implementing structures above the legal requirement.