European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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Industrial relations in the Netherlands - background summary

  • Around 20% of workers in the Netherlands are union members, although that share has been falling steadily in recent years, not least because of rising employment.
  • The latest available statistics published by Statistics Netherlands (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek – CBS – Aantal vakbondsleden blijft teruglopen, 28 October 2015) show that the number of trade union members has been in steady decline for five years and stood at 1 734.4 million in October 2015, a fall of 27 000 year on year. This is the lowest figure since 1991. In March 2013, the CBS had 1.8 million members. Note also that that figure includes around 300 000 members aged 65 or over, most of whom are pensioners.
  • This downward trend is very marked in the 25-45 year age group, where the number registered in 2015 was 19 000 lower than in 2014. Conversely, unions are attracting a younger cohort and registered an increase of 3 000 among young members in one year.
  • The share of women in the trade union movement is growing steadily, rising from 19% in 1991 to 37% in 2015.
  • The Netherlands has two major confederations: the FNV, the larger grouping with over one million members in 2015, and the CNV with close to 390 000 members. Although they were initially divided along ideological and religious lines, relations between them are now good. A third federation, the VCP (Vakcentrale voor Professionals) (formerly the MHP) represents more senior workers. In 2012, it split when one of its unions, De Unie, moved to the private sector. Each of these two organisations has around 50 000 members.
  • The vast majority of workers (81%) are covered by collective bargaining, mostly at industry level. However, many large undertakings negotiate their own agreements. Negotiators generally follow national recommendations.
  • Collective agreements are legally binding on the members of employers’ organisations and the unions that sign them. Employers who have signed an agreement are required to offer the same terms to non-union members. In practice, therefore, all employees are covered, regardless of whether they are members of the unions that sign the agreements. Moreover, the parties to a collective agreement can ask the government to make it binding on all workers in a particular industry.
  • The main channel for employee representation in business undertakings is the works council. It is the chief body representing workers in the workplace. An establishment with more than 50 employees must have a works council, and more than three quarters of the establishments that fall within that category have them. Undertakings with between 10 and 50 employees can set up a staff delegation. Works councils are composed solely of elected employees. The employer is able to make observations at meetings.
  • The law confers three main types of rights on works councils: rights to information, rights of consultation, and rights of approval. There are specific fields where no rule can be introduced, amended or abolished without the works council’s approval.
  • A union chapter can be set up within an undertaking but does not play a very important role within it.
  • Works councils have the right to nominate candidates for one third of the seats on the supervisory boards of undertakings with more than 100 employees. However, neither the undertakings’ employees nor the trade union members dealing with them are eligible to stand. As a result, the members chosen by the works council – often academics, perhaps with a broad sympathy for trade unions’ positions, individuals with a human resources background, people from the voluntary sector and, in some cases, former senior trade unionists – are often somewhat removed from the day-to-day concerns of the workforce.

Greater powers for works councils

  • In 2013, the Works Councils Act (Wet op de ondernemingsraden) was amended for the first time in 15 years. The amendments focused on two particular areas: the employer and the council were now required to agree each year on a training budget for the members of the works council. As before, each member of a works council has the right to five days’ training ‘of sufficient quality’ per year but, following an amendment to the funding mechanism for training, the cost would now have to be borne by the employer. Works councils also have the right to information about the structure of the group to which the undertaking belongs and about the links between the various component companies, even when the group concerned is an international group. The aim of the legislator is for the voices of Dutch employees’ representatives to be heard in the event that the group undergoes restructuring at international level.
  • In 2015, several initiatives were introduced or announced that would increase the power of works councils. In March 2015, a bill was adopted that would give works councils greater power in relation to gender equality. As a result, the council would have the right to approve measures promoting equal pay and a right to additional information on women’s and men’s pay in order to identify differences. In December 2015, the Government decided to delay the tabling of a bill announced in 2015 giving works councils a right of consultation rather than merely a right to information on company directors’ remuneration. The aim is for intervention by a council to restrict excessive remuneration packages. Notice has been given that the bill will be tabled in 2016 and will enter into force on 1 January 2017. Finally, a bill adopted in December 2016 provided for greater rights for councils to information and consultation on occupational pension schemes.
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