N26 head honcho Valentin Stalf
Photo: picture alliance/Lino Mirgeler/dpa

BerlinAbout 30 employees of Berlin-based online bank N26 gathered for a second day at the most logical place to organise – a beer garden – in order to address grievances against their employer.

The employees met on the top floor of the Hofbräuhaus restaurant adjacent to Alexanderplatz on Thursday and Friday to elect a works council for two units of the Berlin-based startup, N26 GmbH and N26 Operations GmbH.

Disgruntled staff began organising earlier this month for a works council to counter what they see as inconsistencies in pay and working conditions. Works councils are a common component of employment in Germany and part of the concept of co-determination where employees gain a say in their employer’s operations.

The council can assist employees with grievances and help set personnel policy.

“The rights in connection with works councils are pretty solid. [Management] can’t take certain decisions without the approval of the works councils or the approval of a labour court,” said Oliver Hauser, a representative of German union Ver.di, on the outskirts of Friday’s meeting.

They’re afraid of co-determination in the end.

Oliver Hauser, Ver.di 

Ver.di agreed to organise a meeting Thursday after N26 sued to halt an election planned by N26 employees earlier in the week. The company argued that there was no adequate space in their offices that could meet corona restrictions while accommodating the hundreds of Berlin employees invited to the election.

A Berlin labour court agreed and issued an injunction, at which point Ver.di stepped in and organised the Thursday meeting at the Hofbräuhaus.

Workers unite - at the Hofbrähaus
Photo: Andrew Bulkeley

N26 again sued following Thursday’s meeting, saying events of 500 and more people were illegal in Berlin and a labour court again agreed, initially halting Friday’s meeting but Ver.di ally IG Metall then stepped in, denying N26 time to take legal action.

The bank itself initially shied from a public confrontation but co-founder Valentin Stalf broke the silence Friday with a post on LinkedIn.

"We fully support our employee’s efforts towards stronger representation at N26 and look forward to working with them on this," he wrote. "N26 will help organise safe and well-planned elections in collaboration with the initiators of the Works Council, we are committed to support any plans going forward."

N26 said the speed with which the controversy evolved made it difficult to work with employees interested in a works council and will await legal guidance on how to now proceed.

"As the event was actually prohibited from taking place by the Berlin Labour Court due to COVID-19- related concerns, we will wait for their official guidance on the validity of these results, and will respect the court's decision on how we should proceed," a spokesperson said.

Internal e-mails obtained by Berliner Zeitung from earlier in the week show the company feared international employees wouldn’t be fairly represented by a German works council and claimed the panel would not be “a contemporary instrument of employee engagement.”

It instead proposed instead a “Global Employee Representation Board”. The e-mail was signed by co-founders Stalf and Maximilian Tayenthal as well as Chief People Officer Noor van Boven.

N26 has long been heralded as the first German fintech unicorn – or company worth over $1 billion. The company, founded in 2013, says it has over 5 million customers in 25 countries while employing more than 1,500.

Company employees hail from 80 different countries and work in Spain, France, Italy, Brazil and Austria in addition to Germany, according to the internal e-mail.

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