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Social dialogue

Social dialogue crucial to tackling impact of COVID-19

Agreements between governments, employers and workers help protect workers, businesses and economies during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report says.

Press release | 20 October 2020
GENEVA (ILO News) – Social dialogue between employers, workers and governments can play a central role in managing the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the workplace and can protect livelihoods and ensure opportunities of those hardest hit.

According to a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Global Deal Partnership, the pandemic has exposed and intensified underlying inequalities and is having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups already facing difficulties, such as the low-skilled, informal workers, young people and women.

The report, Social Dialogue, Skills and COVID-19, argues that social dialogue and collective bargaining help build more inclusive and sustainable economies in which the benefits of growth are distributed across the whole of society.

It points to agreements between business, trade unions and governments, which have helped establish short-time working arrangements aimed at protecting incomes and enterprises during lock-downs. Key ingredients have been commitments by employers to retain workers, agreements by unions on reduced working time, and support from governments through benefits and wage subsidies.

Such agreements can help shore up consumer confidence by keeping workers in jobs and by maintaining incomes.

The report highlights a number of country case studies, including Denmark, where a job retention scheme limited the rise in unemployment to 0.1 percentage point between February and May 2020. In Korea, the social partners (workers’ and employers’ organizations) agreed to increase in the country’s employment retention subsidy from 63 per cent to 75 per cent, with additional emergency support available for small businesses and workers on non-standard contracts.

The report points to the importance of involving all social partners in ensuring safe working conditions during the pandemic. Individual workers may be reluctant to voice concerns for fear of losing their jobs, however social dialogue provides a forum in which workers’ concerns can be expressed and balanced approaches negotiated.

“In these difficult times, social dialogue has never been more important,” said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder. “It helps us build resilience and find ways forward during the crisis. When tough decisions need to be taken it helps us find legitimate, accepted outcomes. Social dialogue will also help promote lifelong learning and skills development once we move to the recovery phase.”

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said, “Social dialogue has shaped the policies that supported workers and sustained the economy, helping to boost confidence during the crisis. Social dialogue’s importance is not limited to the immediate management of the crisis. It also helps countries to meet their UN 2030 Agenda commitments and prepare for global trends such as digitalisation, globalisation and climate change.”

Swedish Trade Minister, Anna Hallberg, also highlighted the crucial role played by social dialogue in both labour markets and wider society.

“The report makes a strong case regarding how essential effective social dialogue is for achieving decent work, sound industrial relations and in extension better societies,” she said.

With many essential frontline workers – such as those in healthcare, food processing and retail – on low wages, the setting of appropriate minimum wages via statutory provisions and/or collective bargaining can improve standards of living. Fairness and equity will result in a more resilient labour market and a stronger economic recovery, the report says.

Beyond the challenges brought by the COVID-19 crisis, labour markets are having to adapt to technological change, creating a demand for new skills. The report says clear policies and mechanisms are needed to promote lifelong learning and skills development. Social dialogue is needed at national, sectoral and firm level. Involving workers in decision-making can facilitate effective adoption of skills development programmes.