The digitalisation of works council work: A distant future or soon to be reality?
Digitalisation has long since arrived in the world of work. And yet German Works Constitution Law in particular has been rather cautious about the introduction of digital options in works council work. Now the debate on the digitalisation of works council work is gaining momentum.
Analogue reality instead of digital progress
While it was possible or even necessary for works councils to switch to digital models for their work during the coronavirus pandemic, eg for holding company and works council meetings, analogue works council work dominates again after the end of the pandemic: printouts of application documents on paper, on-site works council meetings and works council elections in person are all part of everyday works council work in Germany and often make this work more difficult for both the works council and the employer's involvement processes. To date, Works Constitution Law has lacked adequate options for responding to and implementing digital change in practice.
New impetus through motion by the CDU/CSU parliamentary group
In early November, the Committee on Labour and Social Affairs discussed a motion by the CDU/CSU parliamentary group (printed matter 20/4335) calling for more integration of digital options for works council work. Online works council elections are to be introduced as an optional standard procedure and the obligation to be present at works council meetings and consultations before the conciliation committee is to be relaxed. Instead of mandatory physical attendance, the law should in future consider video presence as sufficient. The public hearing on this motion showed that opinions on these demands are quite divided. Even though the experts seem to be largely aware of the need for digital adaptation, there are still voices that do not want to move away from the considerable importance of analogue works council work. It is therefore not yet possible to predict whether and when this motion will actually be implemented. It has certainly led to a renewed discussion about necessary changes and existing options.
The digitalisation of works councils is not yet a reality. However, a decision by the German Federal Labour Court (Bundesarbeitsgericht - BAG) is expected in mid-December 2023 (case no. 1 ABR 28/22), which could play a decisive role in the further development of the digitalisation of works council work. With this decision, the court could overtake the legislator and adapt certain parts of works council work to digital working practices. Whether the BAG will actually make use of this opportunity remains to be seen. We will report on the outcome of this case in due course.
It also remains to be seen when the legislator will enshrine the extensive digital options in law. However, the new discussions and applications around the topic can now give employers in Germany hope. What is certain is that closing the door to the digital transformation of the world of work cannot and should not be sustained in the long term.