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Organising in financial call centres

3. Organising in call centres: the issues for negotiation

a) What do members want?

In May 1999, FIET asked affiliate unions in the finance sector to identify the most important problems in call centres. A range of comments were received, of which these are a selection:

  • From Landelijke Bedienden Centrale Nationaal Verbond voor Kaderpersoneel (LBC-NVK) and Centre Nationale des Employés (CNE) in Belgium: "Besides pay, flexibility in call centres is also a serious problem… [which] must be offset by a greater reduction in working hours. Problems of pressure of work and stress also arise.."
  • From OSPP in the Czech republic: "The union has to focus on special issues: working hours and conditions, overtime, extra pay etc"
  • From Rahoitusalan Ammattiliitto/Finansförbundet-SUORA in Finland: "The most important problems are the pressure to work Saturdays and Sundays with inadequate compensation and pressure to reduce staffing.."
  • From DAG in Germany: "Employee concerns are directed at working time models, further training and humane work organisation"
  • From FIBA-CISL in Italy: "The most important problems are: the pace of work (undefined times, fixed times and part-time); working hours (definition of weekly working hours and their distribution); and salaries
  • From COMFIA-CC.OO. in Spain: "The recently signed collective contract has mitigated the worst problem — lack of regulation — but [the sector] still suffers from serious problems such as low pay, irregular working time and hours, insecure employment arrangements, shortage of training and lack of prospects for advancement".

From these remarks, it can be seen that, when it comes to call centres, finance unions in different countries are tackling very similar negotiating agendas. This section of the report will examine the issues one by one.

However as COMFIA-CCOO goes on to point out, any organising strategy has to be based on actions determined at the grassroots level.

So the question has to be, what are members (and non-members) in call centres themselves most concerned about? Traditionally pay has topped trade unions’ list of priorities, but it has been suggested that may not be the case for call centres. Phil Martin of the Australian Services Union, for example, is reported as arguing that "the main concern is to get the manager off the workers back, and decent facilities — then people start thinking about pay". [Source: contribution made at TUC (UK) New Unionism seminar ‘Organising telephone call centres’, 13 November 1998]

Philip Taylor and Peter Bain in the UK academic study already mentioned asked their surveyed call centre employees to list the three things which they most liked, and the three things they most disliked, about their job. Top of the ‘likes’ were ‘"colleagues, workmates friendly etc" (46.7%), "assisting customers, customer contact, giving customers satisfaction etc" (40.4%) and "hours, shifts, flexible hours, part-time hours" (30.7%). The dislikes produced the following result:

Top Ten Dislikes


Targets, sales targets — unachievable etc.


Boring, monotonous, answering phone all day, repetitive, no variety


Management, supervisors — bad, dishonest, general treatment, lack of respect, understanding


Pressure — stress, not enough time between calls, overloaded, speed-up, understaffing


Hours, shifts — inflexible, expected to do overtime etc.


Breaks — not enough, not long enough


Lack of career opportunities/prospects/development


Monitoring, surveillance, having calls taped, big brother, scripts


Customers — difficult/abusive, contact with


Pay, basic pay, wages, salary


[Source: Trade Unions and Call Centre Survey, Philip Taylor and Peter Bain for Finance Sector Unions, 2000]

Pay is very low down this list. Yet nevertheless when Taylor and Bain asked the same group what should be trade unions’ chief priority, 60% said that unions should prioritise questions of pay, salaries and bonuses. There seems a curious paradox here. What it might mean is that, for many people, trade unions are considered (erroneously) as being only concerned with pay issues. If this is the popular perception, it is one which unions may wish to challenge.

Any organising strategy should start from the concerns and issues identified by the call centre staff themselves

a) Pay

The major problem over pay in call centres can be stated very simply: it is that pay is low.

Whilst paying lip-service to the importance of developing good relations with their customers, most companies choose to pay their call centre staff, the people who are at the interface of this relationship with customers, very poorly.

    Other pay-related issues for unions are:

  • The disappearance of extra premia payments for working evenings, weekends, or public holidays

  • The loss of direct pay comparisons with ‘traditional’ employees working for the same company

  • The increase in performance-related pay and commission, based on sales targets (‘everyone a salesperson in a call centre’)

De Unie in the Netherlands has reported that pay in call centres in the finance sector can be 20%-30% below that applying to staff covered by the bank sector collective agreement. [Source: FIET Annual bank and insurance trade section meeting, 10-12 May 1999, collective bargaining reports].

In Britain, unions point out that the search for low labour costs can encourage companies to seek out low-wage areas within a country. First Direct, which initially set up operations in Leeds, has recently opened a new centre in Hamilton, Scotland, where employment costs are over 2500 ($4000) cheaper per employee. NatWest and Prudential Insurance are among other UK companies with different pay rates operating in different parts of the country. [Source: IDS Pay and Conditions survey 1998]

As we have seen, the unions in Germany have engaged in a protracted struggle against Citibank’s unilateral imposition of new employment conditions, including poorer remuneration packages, at Duisburg. Pay was also one of the causes of an eight-day strike at a call centre near Strasbourg, France, in February 1998. The centre, run by a company Ceritex, operated on an outsourced basis from France Télécom. The hourly rate was increased as a result of the strike from FF46 ($7)to FF49 ($7.40) an hour. [Source: Le Monde, 3 April 1998, reported by Edward Sussex, UNI]

Performance-related pay tied to sales levels is frequently an important component of the overall remuneration paid to call centre staff, reflecting the increasing emphasis which bank and insurance companies are giving to selling, as opposed to simply customer service, in their telephone-led relationships with customers.

In Holland, FNV advises call centre staff to ensure that their bonus payments do not make up more than 10% of gross wages. A bonus is fine, as long as it really is a little something extra, says the union So: ‘Make sure that your basic wage is not too low’.

In line with the team-based culture in call centres, bonuses are frequently based on team, rather than individual, performance. This may seem a less invidious way of arranging payments; nevertheless, it can pit individual workers against their colleagues, since all will suffer if one person chooses to work at a less intense level or is ill. A more satisfactory approach for unions, apart from ensuring good basic pay levels, may be to seek to tie pay to demonstrable competences. This can also help to a limited extent to compensate for the low opportunities for traditional career progression in call centres.

DFL (Danish Insurance Union)/Codan

DFL, the Danish Insurance Union, reports that it has successfully negotiated with Codan Insurance, a company partly owned by Royal & Sun Alliance, over a range of issues including bonus payment. Codan has developed two call centres servicing the whole country, each with about 45 employees.

According to Christian Sletten of the union, "Codan decided to introduce bonus payments in the call centres. What management wanted was to give call centre employees the chance to make extra money on top of their salary if they are able to meet certain sales demands…

"When we were presented with the original draft for a bonus payment system we were, more or less, satisfied. Nevertheless we had a few alterations. The management listened to our suggested and agreed to change the agreement accordingly.

"A year has gone by since the bonus payment system was introduced and management and the union are going to evaluate the agreement in the near future. According to employees in the call centres, the bonus payment system has been a success" [FIET, info 3, 1999]

One result of the low pay regime is that the call centre industry is now facing very high levels of staff turnover: 30%, 40% or even 50% annual ‘churn’ (staff turnover) rates are not unheard of. This is a matter of increasing concern for managements, and may open up some possibilities for negotiating pay levels.

Call centre workers are generally poorly paid. Extra premium payments for evening or weekend working may not be paid.

Performance-related pay and commission based on sales targets are a common feature of call centre life. Where possible, it is usually more satisfactory to link pay levels to demonstrable competencies.

High staff turnover rates in call centres offers a possible lever for unions negotiating to improve pay levels or structures.

a)Hours of work and shift patterns

Direct banking and insurance services using telephone call centres are open for business much longer than was traditional in the sector, in many cases operating twenty-fours a day, seven days a week.

This leads to major changes to working patterns. Among issues for trade unions are:

  • The disappearance in call centres of the ‘normal’ full-time working week, and its replacement by flexible and part-time working patterns
  • A lack of control over shifts/hours to be worked
  • Evening and/or weekend working treated no differently from other hours of work; working antisocial hours as an expectation of the job

Of course, flexible working hours can benefit individual workers as well as their employers, if it means for example that work can be fitted in more easily around home responsibilities, such as childcare, or other commitments (as in the case with student employees who are supplementing their income whilst at university). The category ‘Hours, shifts, flexible hours, part-time hours’ came third in the ‘top ten likes’ recorded by Taylor and Bain in their UK survey reported above. On the other hand, the same issues also featured fairly high in the list of ‘top ten dislikes’ as well.

Flexibility needs to be introduced by agreement, not management diktat.

  • In Spain, the Federación de Servicios (UGT) sectoral agreement on telemarketing, covering 1999 and 2000, includes provisions for irregular working hours. It includes, for example, the provision that no more than eleven days can be worked without a break, after which at lease three days’ break must be provided. The agreement also includes arrangements for overtime premium payments of 25%-80%, with the highest premia payable for night-time and public holiday working.
  • In the UK, an agreement between BIFU (now Unifi) and the Co-operative Bank covers flexible working at the bank’s call centres. Core working hours in the centres are between 8am and 6pm Mon-Fri, and work outside these hours attracts premium payments. For example, the early morning hours between midnight and 6am attract a 40% premium; Saturday and Sunday working attracts a 35% premium. The agreement states that ‘Subject to operational requirements, the Bank will make every effort to seek volunteers and/or accommodate individual requests to change hours".

The Financial Services Direct Staff Charter, drawn up by MSF (UK) includes the following:

Employees must have flexibility in the arrangement of working hours to ensure that they can lead normal, active social lives. Employees must have the ability to take time off away from work.

Employers must ensure that they adequately resource direct operations and must accept that overtime ultimately leads to increased stress and burnout and increased levels of labour turnover.

Evening and weekend working raise issues of first aid provision and employee security, especially if staff are arriving for work or leaving work very late at night. This is particularly important given that a large percentage of the call centre staff may be women, who are more vulnerable to attack. Call centres located in isolated business parks away from public transport have a particular responsibility to ensure staff safety.

Extended hours of operation also raise questions of refreshment provision. Call centre canteens may be open only for day staff. What provision for drinks and food are provided for evening and night workers?

Flexible working hours can benefit employees as well as management, but must be introduced by agreement.

Call centre staff need to have influence over the hours and shifts which they are asked to work. Shift rosters should be drawn up with adequate notice to staff.

All the implications for staffing of 24 x 7 operating of call centres need to be adequately considered in advance.

c) Employment status and rights

As already mentioned, there is widespread use in call centres in several countries of employment contracts less favourable than those traditionally offered by the parent company. It is not simply that pay may be lower: workers may also suffer from exclusion from pension or social insurance provisions, poorer sick pay or less holiday entitlement.

In addition, there is

  • widespread use of agency staff, working alongside employees, but often for even less money or benefits

  • widespread use of short-term contracts

  • outsourcing of call centre management to third parties

The use of agency workers in call centres requires union attention. A number of large agency staffing companies, such as Manpower and Adecco, specifically train staff for call centre placement. Unions should be seeking to ensure that agency staff, as well as directly employed employees, are organised.

In the UK, both the agreement between BIFU (now Unifi) and the Co-operative Bank and that between Communications Workers Union and British Telecom tackled the issue of agency workers. In each case, the company undertook to reduce its dependence on agency staffing.

The business fashion for outsourcing is obviously a much broader issue than that simply of call centres. There is some limited evidence there that there may be a movement away from the outsourcing of call centre provision (for example, both French and Dutch unions in the telecommunications sector reported to Communications International in 1999 that call centres are being brought back in-house). However, market analysts Datamonitor suggest an opposite tendency, with outsourcing of call centre operations likely to increase over the next few years. According to Datamonitor, about 80,000 of the estimated 625,000 call centre agents in Europe (year 2000 figures) are working for outsourced call centre operations.

In Australia, a 1999 court judgment ruled that workers at a call centre operated by a subsidiary company of the national telecoms company Telstra but undertaking work for the parent company should be bound by Telstra conditions of employment. The firm had effectively laid off hundreds of its own employees and then set up the subsidiary firm to do the same work at lower cost.

FNV Bondegnoten (Netherlands) offers a free contract checking service for members. The union says that, although agency staff in call centres are usually covered under the collective agreement for temporary agencies, there remain many call centre staff (both employees and agency workers) who are not covered by collective agreements and where only standard employment law applies.

Unions should seek to organise and recruit agency staff

e) Health and safety issues

Call centre staff face many of the same health & safety concerns as conventional office workers, but their working environment also raise a number of other issues.

Very poor attitudes to employee well-being can be found: one UK investigative TV programme, for example, reported the case of the call centre employee who suffered an epileptic fit at work and who found subsequently that his pay had been docked for the twenty minutes he was unconscious and the further time he was taken by ambulance to hospital. His bonus payment was also lost, because he no longer had ‘perfect attendance’. [Channel 4 TV (UK), Special Report, broadcast 14.12.99]

In general, the pressures of the work and the requirement to meet call-handling targets can mean that health and safety issues do not receive the attention from employers which they require (or, for that matter, by unions either).

We can identify a number of health and safety issues which have specific relevance for call centres:

Ventilation, lighting and heating

Because of night-time and weekend working call centres may be occupied continuously, and ventilation, air filtering and heating systems need to be designed to cope with this level of use. Temporary screens erected in open-plan areas can interrupt airflow and cause pockets of stale air. Computers push out considerable quantities of heat, which has the effect of drying out the atmosphere.

Ergonomic design of telephone and computer equipment, chairs and desks; protection for workers using visual display units

Good ergonomic design of workstations is generally recognised as vital to help avoid musculo-skeletal disorders such as repetitive strain injury (RSI). In the European Union, use of VDUs (monitor screens) is covered by a directive on display screen equipment. However, unions in a number of countries reported in a survey carried out by Communications International that the directive was not always well applied in call centres.

Larger screen monitors are becoming increasingly common in call centres. However, the larger the monitor, the larger the workstation space required in order to ensure that the monitor is the correct distance from the user.

Noise at work

Call centre workers have reported that they are subjected both to sudden intense noise and to prolonged high levels of background noise.

  • In Denmark, the Telekommunikationsforbundet has reported that staff at TeleDanmark’s call centres have experienced very loud noises through their headsets when taking customer calls. The noises come suddenly, without warning and can last several seconds. TeleDanmark engineers have tried without success to trace the cause of the noise. [Communication from Villy Langesen]
  • In the UK, a joint survey on noise at work from the TUC and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People found that 39% of call centre staff surveyed were concerned that the hearing was being damaged, and more than a quarter said that there were sometimes sudden loud bursts of noise. "One of the most disturbing aspects of the survey is the finding that the hearing of call centre workers may be being damaged by exposure to noise at work", it reported. [Indecent Exposure, RNID/TUC, March 1999]
Voice loss

Dysphonia (voice loss) can mean not simply the inability to speak, but also pain or tension when trying to speak. One specialist UK report suggests that call handlers can be at a higher risk of voice loss that conventional office workers. [Initial Advice regarding Call Centre Working Practices, HELA, Nov 1999]

Work-related stress and bullying

Working in a call centre is by its very nature very stressful. The constant pressure to answer calls quickly, and to reduce the ‘wrap-up’ time between calls, can intensify the stress.

It has been argued that ideally call centre staff should spend about 60%-70% actually taking calls. Some companies aim for 80%, whilst some examples of 95%+ have been reported. Companies also typically set targets for average call duration and wrap-up time. Most call centres have electronic displays showing the number of calls waiting to be received.

These pressures on staff can be increased still further if employees also have sales targets which they are expected to meet. Bullying of employees by team leaders is a real danger in this environment.

Good health and safety practice when using VDUs is for screen breaks to be regularly taken. The pressure of call centre working can mean either that breaks are not made available, or — if they are — that workers are ‘encouraged’ by the work culture to work on and not take them. In some call centres, employees must ask permission even to visit the toilet.

Breaks are valuable in helping to avoid eye-strain and headaches, and can actually enhance productivity. A ten minute break at least every two hours seems a minimum negotiating demand. GPA (Austria) calls for a ten minute break every hour. This is the current practice, for example, in Germany at the Bausparkasse Schwäbisch-Hall.

One issue for unions to confront is the tendency of employers to see stress as a individual, rather than a collective, problem — as something which affects those workers who in some sense are not ‘up to the job’ and not an inevitable outcome of the work processes and organisation of call centre life. The emphasis should be on improving work methods to reduce the risk of stress, rather than simply dealing with problems after they have already occurred. In other words, stress should be treated in exactly the same way as other potential health hazards in the workplace.

The employer should be encouraged to see stress primarily as a result of the nature of the job, rather than as a result of someone’s personal makeup. They should be discouraged from using terms like ‘stress management’, but rather encouraged to look at means of reducing workplace stress by improving working conditions and aspects of the job. [On line advice, a negotiator’s guide to good employment practice in call centres, UNISON (UK)]

Whilst superficially ‘clean’ working environments, call centres raise a series of health and safety issues and concerns, which unions should address. Stress is a particular health hazard in call centres.

f) Surveillance, electronic monitoring and privacy

One software company has used the slogan ‘Total Control Made Easy’ to advertise its call centre package. [The Guardian 21 Feb 1998, quoted by Edward Sussex, UNI] In general call centre technology gives employers the power to maintain quite astonishing levels of electronic surveillance and monitoring of their staff.

  • Permanent electronic monitoring of each employee enables supervisors to know, for example, which of their staff are currently handling calls, who are waiting for new calls, who are taking breaks, etc. This electronic monitoring can also be undertaken remotely, in the case of home-based call centre staff.

  • Supervisors are likely to have the facility to listen in secretly to conversations taking place. The recording of these telephone conversations may also be automatic.

    According to Philip Taylor and Peter Bain in their survey of UK financial call centre staff, "There is no doubt that many workers do see the mechanisms of surveillance and monitoring as contributing to the pressures of the job. Over one-third believed that having their calls taped contributed ‘a great deal’ or ‘to some extent’ to the pressures of the job." [Source: Trade Unions and Call Centre Survey, Philip Taylor and Peter Bain for Finance Sector Unions, 2000]

    The legal position regarding the actual recording of telephone calls may vary between countries. However, as the delivery of financial services by telephone has developed, there has been a growing tendency to maintain records of telephone conversations for security and auditing purposes. Unions should seek to ensure that this legitimate function is not abused by employers for unnecessary monitoring or harassing of staff.

    GPA (Austria) points out that basic human rights to privacy of both employees and members of the public may be jeopardised by telephone conversation monitoring. The union calls where possible for call centre software to be adapted to remove automatic monitoring features. Where calls are monitored it argues for strict control of this process, so that:

    • monitoring is only undertaken for training purposes
    • the process gives staff greater confidence in the way they handle conversations
    • monitoring is agreed in advance with the member of staff affected
    • monitoring is undertaken from nearby and not from a centre elsewhere

    [GPA: Arbeit im Call Center, Vorschläge zur Gestaltung, Jan 1999]

    FNV Bondgenoten in the Netherlands has also focused on this issue. FNV recommends that monitoring is allowed only under the following conditions:

    • monitoring allowed only when the purpose is known and acceptable
    • collected data only used for that purpose; the emeployee must know he/she may be monitored
    • listening in may only occur occasionally and not continuously; the employee must have access to recorded data to be able to correct inaccuracies
    • tapes must be destroyed after a certain period

    The environment in call centres is hectic and demanding, staff should be able to operate in a ‘blame free’ culture where the atmosphere is supportive rather than punitive. [On line advice, a negotiator’s guide to good employment practice in call centres, UNISON (UK)]

    A related issue is the right of employees to be able to make personal calls from work. This was the focus of a European Court of Human Rights judgment (Halford v UK) brought under the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8. The Court judgment found that the monitoring of phone calls made by Ms Halford ( a senior policewoman) at work had violated the Convention, which states that "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence".

    The implication of the judgment is that employees must be offered facilities for making telephone calls at work free from monitoring. To quote the formal notice subsequently published by the British government (the government at the centre of the Court judgment) "It is not reasonable to expect that employees will never be contacted on a domestic matter in work time, or that the employee will never have reason to make personal calls from the office. One way of addressing this problem would be through the provision of payphones in the workplace, with an undertaking from the employer that these telephones would not be subject to private side monitoring or interception…"

    Call centre staff are subject to unacceptable levels of electronic surveillance and monitoring. Any such monitoring should be undertaken by employers overtly rather than covertly, and by prior agreement with unions.

    g) Training

    Unions are rightly concerned to stress the importance of adequate vocational training for employees.

    In the call centre industry the issue of training has particular relevance given the following:

    • The lack of career development, as a result of flat management structures
    • Work patterns which are repetitive
    • Work which is highly structured and does not lead to the acquisition of additional skills (for example, the use of scripted conversations)

    Good training provision can be a key factor in retaining staff and maintaining their motivation. As the GPA (Austria) points out, good training helps maintain good levels of customer service. The union calls for training to be designed with the particular needs of the individual workers in mind. [GPA: Arbeit im Call Center, Vorschläge zur Gestaltung, Jan 1999]

    An interesting example of direct participation by a union in training provision comes from New Zealand where the financial sector union FinSec is collaborating with other partners and with the Electrotechnology Industry Training Organisation to develop a ‘National Certificate in Call Centre Operation’. Whilst some of the competency units in this Certificate are generic to office working, others are specific to call centre working. FinSec sees the qualification as helping call centre workers develop more portable careers.

    In Germany, the HBV union has endorsed a similar initiative being operated by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Düsseldorf. The training programme, which was launched in early 2000, involves broad-based training in business administration, marketing, sales and communication skills. Call centre employees undertaking the training programme who pass their exams will have obtained transferable management and supervisory qualifications. HBV has called for the Düsseldorf pilot initiative to be rolled out across the whole country.

    A European-wide project, funded by the EU Social Fund, is currently developing standards and qualifications for call centre workers and exploring the potential for computer based distance learning.

    The project (which is running from June 1999 until December 2000) is co-ordinated by the European Federation of Direct Marketing Associations (FEDMA). UNI-Europa is responsible for co-ordinating national trade union input into the project.

    At present, three EU member states (The Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom) have nationally recognised training standards and qualifications for the industry. One aim of the project is to establish European standards for call centre qualification. The project aims to devise methods for structuring the core competencies needed, so that qualifications obtained in one European member state are recognised elsewhere.

    The project has been established partly in recognition of the shortage of trained workers in the sector and the high levels of ‘call centre burnout’ among existing staff. More details are on the web site

    The issue of training has particular importance in the call centre industry, given the lack of career paths and the repetitive nature of the work being undertaken.

    h) Equal opportunities issues

    The fact that many call centres employ more women than men reinforces the importance of ensuring that equal opportunities issues are high on trade union agendas. The issue of employee safety, especially for women working late at night, has already been discussed in this report.

    Other possible issues for union involvement are:

  • Encouraging the development of family-friendly working practices

  • Flexible working patterns to be reached by negotiation, not imposed unilaterally

  • Provision of childcare facilities on-site

    Flexibility in working hours can, and should, be of benefit to employees as well as employers. However too often flexible work patterns seem designed simply to benefit the company.

    Working non-standard hours may suit many people who are trying to fit their working lives around family caring commitments. However it is important that there is a degree of control by the individual. Typical call centre work patterns, including late night, early morning and weekend working make childcare difficult to organise, and this is especially the case if only short notice is given. Whilst it is true that the task of arranging staff rosters in call centres to deal with expected call levels can be a challenging one for management, this is not an excuse for last-minute ad-hoc arrangements. In France, the CFDT reports that one call centre, UNITE 15, publicises its rosters six weeks in advance.

    The issue of working hours is particularly relevant in the case of virtual call centres, where calls are handled using ACD technology from home (see below).

    The particular needs of women workers, often the majority of workers in a call centre, need to be addressed.

    i) In conclusion: developing good practice

    In the light of their experience of organising in call centres, a number of unions have developed codes of good practice for the sector.

    It may be appropriate to end this section by mentioning the model guidelines for call centre working published by the HBV, DPG and IG Medien (Germany) in their booklet Arbeiten im Call Center. The model guidelines are grouped together in eight categories:

    • Stable employment relations
    • Collective regulation of rules on standard working times
    • Work, and workplaces, to conform to ergonomic standards
    • Respect for individual autonomy in the organisation of work
    • Qualitative performance measures rather than quantitative targets
    • Training and career prospects
    • Pay structures which acknowledge skills and knowledge
    • Co-determination rights and union representation