Economic Chambers (Wirtschaftskammern), formerly called Chambers of Trade (Kammern der gewerblichen Wirtschaft) or Chambers of Commerce (Handelskammern), interest groups of businesspersons, with compulsory membership and endowed with the right to examine bills and draft regulations since 1849; gradually gained influence by various laws from 1850, 1868, 1920 and 1937, and largely reorganised on the basis of the Handelskammergesetz (Law on Chambers of Commerce) of 1946 (amended in 1995) and the Wirtschaftskammergesetz (Law on Economic Chambers) in 1998.
Each province has a regional chamber consisting of 6 sections, which are not legal entities and which cover some of the following areas: Crafts, Trades, Services, Industry, Trade, Credit and Insurance Issues, Transport, Telecommunications, Tourism and Leisure Industry. Until 1937, when a federal chamber (Bundeskammer) was founded, there were only provincial chambers. However, it did not become active until 1938. In 1946 a powerful Bundeskammer was set up (renamed Wirtschaftskammer Österreich on January 1, 1994); although it wields considerable control power, its federative structure gives a certain amount of autonomy to its various organs.
The integration of specialised associations into the Chamber organisation in 1946 is unique in the world; it is made up of 130 trade associations and of specialised groups in the provincial chambers, which are mainly called Federal or Provincial Guilds (Bundes- und Landesinnungen) within the Crafts, Trades and Services section and Federal or Provincial Committees (Bundes- und Landesgremien) in the Trade section. In some cases, there are only Fachvertretungen, i.e. representative bodies without legal personality instead of Fachgruppen, which are organised as corporations under public law. The entire Chamber organisation comprises about 1,000 corporations under public law (Federal Chamber (Bundeskammer), Provincial Chambers (Landeskammern), and specialised associations and groups. Responsibility is divided up according to the principle of subsidiarity; matters are either dealt with jointly, in specialised groups or in a particular section itself.
Almost all branches of the industry and trade except for the electric power industry are members of Economic Chambers. On account of the frequent need to negotiate compromises among the different branches, compulsory membership (also obligatory for specialised associations, i.e. Fachgruppen and Fachvertretungen) is very important. A relevant license that entitles the holder to run a business in trade and industry is the condition for membership in both a chamber and in a specialised association. At the end of 1999, the provincial chambers had about 374,000 members, of which many were businesses in the public sector.
The chambers are in control of their own sphere of operation (they are exempted from state direction and are only subject to legal supervision by the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs). They defend the interests of businesses against the state and against other groups of persons in gainful employment. They are entitled to advisory status in the examination of bills and especially important draft regulations, and they delegate representatives to numerous institutions including commissions, councils, social security authorities etc. Chambers, specialised associations and specialised groups have the capacity to enter into collective agreements. Chambers also act on behalf of the state in respect of duties delegated to them and are involved in vocational training.
Decisions are taken by functionaries who are elected for five years; the principal organs include the Kammertag (Council of Chambers) of the Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, the general assemblies of the provincial chambers and the meetings of the associations. All members of the competent specialised agencies are members of the Kammertag (direct democracy). The elections for the associations´ committees are direct, the other elections are indirect (proportional representation with due regard for small groups of voters). The president of the Wirtschaftskammer Österreich is elected by the Council of Chambers (Kammertag), the presidents of the provincial chambers are elected by the general assemblies. The Wirtschaftskammer Österreich has a secretariat general and a secretary general, each provincial chamber a chamber directorate (Kammerdirektion) and a chairperson.
The chambers run the largest non-governmental system of education and further training through their umbrella organisation, the Wirtschaftsförderungsinstitut Österreich (WIFI). The Wirtschaftskammer Österreich possesses about 80 Foreign Trade Offices for the promotion of trade with foreign countries. The chambers and specialised associations are financed by various levies (chamber levy and basic levies including those for specialised associations, registration fees and fees for special services.
Literature: K. Korinek, Wirtschaftliche Selbstverwaltung, 1970; F. Geißler, Österreichische Handelskammerorganisation der Zwischenkriegszeit, 2 vols., 1977/80; H. Reiger, Zum Recht der Handelskammern, 1992; P. Pernthaler, Kammern im Bundesstaat, 1996; K. Retter, Die Wirtschaftskammerorganisation, 1997.
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