A Betriebsrat is often referred to in English as a works council or a workers council, which consists of a group of employees, who are democratically elected by the workforce to officially act as representatives on their behalf on all matters concerning workers’ rights.
Normally the Betriebsrat works very closely with the Human Resources department particularly on employee issues or new company wide policies. In all cases the Betriebsrat has to discuss whether the company has acted lawfully in a matter and ethically. If a decision needs to be made, then the Betriebsrat would normally take a vote.
If you are working at SUSE, you might be interested to know that the SUSE Betriebsrat was formally required to approve your employment before you began at SUSE. Why? You may ask. Well, that’s because the members of the Betriebsrat have to ensure that each person who was interviewed for the job was not unfairly discriminated against. So the fact that you have a job here at SUSE means that you won that job fairly-and-squarely and on your own merit.
The Betriebsrat is also concerned when new software is used inside the company where users are expected to open accounts by giving some of their personal information. In Germany, the data protection policies are probably the most strictest in the world and so the Betriebsrat has to be extremely cautious to allow the use of software that might have the potential of causing personal data to be illegally exploited. This could have a heavy consequence on the company, particularly if the company is seen to condone the use of a software tool, where the data might be stored – let’s say for example – in a large data centre somewhere in the U.S. where data protection laws are quite relaxed.
Sometimes there are no easy solutions to problems, so the Betriebsrat has to work with the local management to come up with the best outcome for the employees without compromising the business too much. This is known as codetermination (that is “co-determination” and *not* “code-termination” if you’re wondering).
What happens if the company runs into financial problems and has to lay workers off. Then the Betriebsrat normally steps in and would initiate procedures in an attempt to protect as many individuals’ jobs as possible. One such mechanism is Kurzarbeit, where your current salary is partially subsidized by the Bundesagentur für Arbeit (the government’s unemployment office). What’s the advantage of this? For you, getting a new job isn’t always easy once you have been laid off, so it’s good to be able to keep your job, even though you might asked to stop working for a period of time. For the company, they don’t really want to lay anyone off and they certainly don’t want to have to recruit new inexperienced and untrained people at great expense to replace you once business gets better again. So it’s a win-win situation when it works.
There are many other laws that the Betriebsrat has to make sure are upheld in the work place and so the Betriebsrat often act as a think-tank on solving long and short term issues that affect everyone.
If you are interested to know a little more about your own rights in the German workplace, you might want to take a look at the Works Constitutional Act, which has been fortunately translated into English and published online:
I hope this might help.