A rather unique phenomenon for the Austrian industrial relations is the existence of the Chamber of Labour (mainly operating under the abbreviation AK, hereafter used). To be more precise, there is one Chamber of Labour (Länderkammer) in all the nine states (Bundesländer). Together they form the Federal Chamber of Labour (Bundesarbeitskammer, BAK).

Background information

Unlike the membership of the united trade union federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), which is voluntary, the AK structure is an interest representation body by law. The Federal Chamber of Labour represents the interests of about 3.6 million employees and consumers with mandatory membership (data for 2016). In general, all employees, apprentices, workers on parental leave and unemployed people fall under its scope of operation, with the exception of executive staff and public sector employees [source] The Vienna Chamber of Labour (AK-Wien) functions as the administrative body of the Federal Chamber of Labour.

According to the Chamber of Labour Act (Arbeiterkammergesetz, AKG), the umbrella organisation, the Federal Chamber of Labour, and the provincial Chambers of Labour are self-governing public entities. According to this act, the entire AK structure is financed by a levy amounting to 0.5% of all members’ gross wages or salaries up to a certain maximum threshold. More than 80% of these funds are spent on direct services to AK-members. The Chamber of Labour started already in the 1920s and was reestablished after WW II. The 1954-version of the Act was only slightly amended during a 38-years period. A total modernisation took place in 1992.[Text of the current Chamber of Labour Act - in German]

The function of the Chambers of Labour differs to a certain extent from the tasks of the economic chambers (WKO). The economic chambers are legal bodies representing employers in almost all industries, membership is also made mandatory by law for all employers. Collective bargaining normally takes place between the trade unions on the one side and the economic chambers on the other side. The AK is not directly involved in collective bargaining. The nine provincial Chambers of Labour provide support and services to workers and their unions in other areas.

The role and functioning in practice

The range of services provided by the AK to the members is relatively broad and consist of activities such as information and advice, legal assistance, educational and cultural services, as well as consumer protection. In case of individual labour or employment disputes, employees can contact the AK for obtaining information, advice or assistance in legal procedures. The AK has the right to intervene by contacting the employer directly, in order to avoid formal litigation before the courts. The AK also participates in legislative processes on behalf of the employees through the evaluation of draft legislation and drawing up proposals for amendments. In an assessment of the credibility of institutions in Austria the AK is ranked high on the credibility list of NGOs (75% of the responding citizens stated that the AK is a reliable organisation) [Source]. Currently, the AK has a staff of around 2.600 workers. The following tasks are listed on the AK website.

-          Fundamental research for the benefit of workers and consumers

The AK conducts studies on a wide range of relevant issues that serve as a scientific basis for effective policy-making on behalf of employees. They closely co-operate with the other social partners in conducting and publishing joint studies on social and economic issues. The results of these studies feature the country’s political discourse and frequently serve as policy guidelines.

-          Participation in and control of legislation

The AK evaluates draft legislation from the point of view of employees' interests, makes proposals for amendments and is subsequently involved in the implementation of these laws. Often impulses for legislative initiatives emanate from the AK and its experts, whose research continually underlines the need for legislative action.

-          Services

The AK offers the members information and advice on different issues related to labour law, social insurance, tax law, women's and family policy, worker protection, the protection of apprentices and young workers, unemployment insurance, and consumer protection. In labour-law disputes between employees and employers the AK provides legal assistance ranging from oral or written interventions with employers to free representation of employees before the Labour and Social Tribunals.

-          Education and culture

The AK provides substantial sums of money for education, vocational training and further education as well as the training of officials in the labour movement, and organise exhibitions, film screenings, theatre performances and concerts.

Evaluation 2016/outlook 2017

The AK made an assessment of the work in 2016 and discussed the outlook for 2017.The AK collected in court cases around 234-million-euro compensation for workers and consumers; another 38 million euro was earned outside the court. An estimated 220 million euro was reached in so-called social justice proceedings. Assistance towards the tax authorities resulted in another 40 million euro that returned to the membership. The AK offered a series of services in 2016, like brochures, information leaflets, meetings and events, library services and online calculators. Important part of the activities is the training, education and advisory work for works council members. Beyond this, individual members received training vouchers with a value of in total 4.5 million euro. More than 1.3 million of the around 2 million provided individual advisory services, were cases related to workplace, social and insolvency issues. The AK campaigned against social and wage dumping and participated in the drafting of legislative proposals. Important was also the campaign to improve the purchase power of workers, by a lowering of the income tax (‘Lohnsteuer senken’).

Priorities for the future are the reduction of unemployment, a reform of the tax system and improvement of social housing. An important challenge for the future is how to deal with the digitalisation of the world of work.