The central purpose of labour law is to protect employees. Employees are dependent on their employers, not just economically, but personally under their contract of employment. The resulting need for special protection is met by labour law. The basic idea of labour law is to bring about a fair balance of interests between employers and employees. The main purpose of labour law consists of protecting employees from violations of personal integrity, economic disadvantage and health risks involved in working as an employee.
Home workers, who are especially economically dependent on their employers, are also covered by labour law, partly under special provisions and partly under provisions applying to all employees. Labour law is divided into individual labour law, which governs relations between employers and employees, and collective labour law, which applies to legal relations between unions and employer associations at company and most of all at inter-company level.
Individual labour law centres on the relationship between a person in work and his or her employer, as governed by the employment contract between them.
There are two main questions dealt with by every employment contract: what work you are expected to do, and what pay you are entitled to in return.
Your employment contract may also lay down other rights and duties that go to make up your overall working conditions. Certain minimum standards for conditions of employment are contained in various laws, including the Federal Paid Leave Act (Bundesurlaubsgesetz), the Continued Payment of Remuneration Act (Entgeltfortzahlungsgesetz), the Part-time and Fixed-term Employment Act (Teilzeit- und Befristungsgesetz), the Caregiver Leave Act (Pflegezeitgesetz), and the Family Caregiver Leave Act (Familienpflegezeitgesetz).
Subject to certain requirements, the Part-time and Fixed-term Employment Act allows employees to reduce their working hours; employees can also apply for this for a limited duration (‘Brückenteilzeit’, meaning a ‘bridge’ period of part-time employment between periods of full-time employment). The Act’s provisions are designed to prevent part-time employees from being treated differently to full-time employees unless there are justified grounds for doing so.
The Caregiver Leave Act and the Family Caregiver Leave Act make it easier to reconcile work and family care by allowing employees, subject to certain requirements, to look after close relatives in need of nursing care at home for up to six months while being fully or partly released from employment.
The statutory guaranteed minimum standards generally apply for all employees, including people employed on a fixed-term, part-time or marginal basis and people employed by temporary work agencies.
Labour law allows employers and employees to agree more favourable working conditions – going beyond the statutory minimum – by individual contract of employment or by collective agreement (see under Collective Bargaining Law).
Protection against dismissal
When it comes to the termination of the employment relationship, the employee enjoys a certain protection, mostly governed by the Protection Against Dismissal Act (Kündigungsschutzgesetz). Under the scope of the Protection Against Dismissal Act, a legally effective dismissal requires a “social justification”. Additionally, a dismissal has to meet certain formal requirements (e.g. notice period). Employees that consider their dismissal as unlawful can file a lawsuit to the competent labour court within three weeks after the reception of the dismissal in writing.
The preconditions for limiting the term of an employment contract and the legal consequences of an invalid term limitation are governed by the Part-time and Fixed-term Employment Act (Teilzeit- und Befristungsgesetz). Fixed-term employment contracts terminate without notice when the contract period expires or on achievement of a specified purpose. A fixed-term employment contract may be terminated with the agreed period of notice before the contract period expires if the possibility of termination is agreed in the employment contract or applicable collective agreement. An employee wishing to contest the validity of a term limitation in an employment contract must file legal action with the labour court within three weeks of the agreed end of the contract.
The General Equal Treatment Act (Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz) provides protection against discrimination at work by prohibiting discrimination due to race or ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual identity.
The Act regulates rights and measures that employers can take to prevent discrimination and protect employees’ rights. In case the employee feels discriminated against he or she can ─ under certain circumstances:
- lodge a complaint with the competent department in the firm;
- refuse performance without loss of pay insofar as this is necessary for his or her protection;
- or obtain damages or compensation from the employer.