Forschungsprojekt: Bargaining along the value chain

Italy and Germany compared


The study investigates the strategies adopted by workplace labour representatives for regulating agency work and subcontractors at workplace level, and their outcomes for workers. Taking the example of four metal plants, it looks at how institutional and socio-economic factors affect representatives’ bargaining strategies in workforce segments outside of their traditional representation domain.



Companies' increasing use of agency workers and subcontractors has been found associated with growing inequalities and weakening industrial democracy, as traditional regulations often do not guarantee these workers the same representation rights and access to collective voice mechanisms as permanent workers. Still, newspapers and academic literature reported several successful cases where labour actors had a significant and positive impact on the employment conditions of agency workers and on-site subcontractors. Hence, it is important to acquire greater knowledge about the strategies developed by workplace representatives and the conditions under which they are able to improve the working conditions of these workforce segments. By so doing, this research aims at identifying new and effective strategies for representing workers in increasingly fragmented workplaces and for bargaining on their behalf.


Our project examines how labour and management bargain on external flexibility arrangements including agency work and subcontractors at workplace level. In particular, it looks at how differences in the legislative framework and industrial relations institutions affect how and to what extent labour representatives have managed to include workers on agency contracts and employed by on-site subcontractors in their bargaining domain.


The project compared four plants belonging to two Multinational Companies (MNCs) in the metal sector with headquarters in Italy and in Germany; the two plants analysed for each company are also, respectively, in Italy and in Germany. Field research was based on interviews with human resource managers, workplace representatives and union officials, and on the analysis of press statements and documents by the unions, companies and employers’ associations, and newspaper articles.

Darstellung der Ergebnisse

Findings highlight similarities and differences in the strategies adopted by workplace representatives for regulating agency work and subcontractors. Results show that the activism of employee representatives in all plants was crucial in ensuring better working conditions to external workers, even if their level of engagement was higher towards agency workers than towards subcontracted workers. Cross-national differences were also visible, as industrial relations institutions affect the power resources available to workers’ representatives. Stronger codetermination rights in Germany were key power resources for German works councils and enabled them to negotiate relatively stricter regulation than in Italy. In Italy, the lack of codetermination rights was partly compensated by trade unions' capacity to mobilise core workers, but this ability was sometimes compromised by weakening national legislation and sectoral agreements. Still, broader coverage of sectoral agreements and stricter equal pay legislation in Italy mediated the impact of employers’ segmentation strategies on inequalities, leading to a more compressed wage structure (but lower salary levels) than in Germany.

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