Pivoting social dialogue to enhance the role of unions in COVID-19 recovery

Greater inclusion can encourage more human-centred approaches to labour solutions in the Caribbean

News | 25 March 2021
by Vera Guseva, Specialist, Workers’ Activities, ILO Caribbean

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected workers and their representative organizations globally. Across the Caribbean, several Trade unions report that unemployment is the main issue faced by their members, alongside the lack of access to social security for those in the informal sector, reduced working hours and layoffs. Despite these challenges, Trade unions in many countries are responding to the crisis and protecting the most vulnerable through participation in social dialogue.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) four-pillar policy framework  which is featured in the 2020 ILO brief, A policy framework for responding to the COVID-19 crisis, is based on international labour standards (ILS) and provides a roadmap to cope with the socio-economic impact of the crisis. It emphasizes social dialogue as the way forward to reach collective solutions that take into account the needs of enterprises and workers and promotes stability and public confidence.

Social dialogue is defined by the ILO as any type of negotiation, consultation or simple exchange of information between, or among, representatives of governments, employers and workers, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy. It can exist as a tripartite process, with the government as an official party to the dialogue, or it may consist of bipartite relations only between labour and management (or Trade unions and employers' organizations), with or without indirect government involvement. Social dialogue processes can be informal or institutionalized, and is often a combination of the two. It can take place at the national, regional or enterprise level, and can be inter-professional, sectoral or a combination of these.

The Global Trend Analysis on the Role of Trade Unions in Times of COVID-19  by the ILO Bureau for Workers Activities (ACTRAV) reveals that 108 out of 133 countries analyzed, or 81 per cent, used social dialogue in response to the pandemic to achieve a consensus on targeted measures to protect workers and enterprises.

Seventy six per cent of 25 countries in the Americas that were analyzed used at least one form of social dialogue. Bipartite dialogue between employers and Trade unions was reported in 56 per cent of countries. Bilateral interactions between governments and Trade unions took place in 36 per cent. Tripartite dialogue between governments, Trade unions and employers’ organizations took place in 15 countries (60 per cent).

Another recent ILO report, COVID-19 and the English- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean labour market: A rapid assessment of impact and policy responses at the end of Q3, 2020, highlights successful examples of social dialogue in the region involving workers’ organizations.  

In The Bahamas, the National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTU) engaged in tripartite social dialogue  by participating in the work of two commissions, the COVID-19 Response Team and the Economic Recovery Consul. The social dialogue led to the amendment to the Employment Benefit Policy.

The Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) participated in national tripartite consultations that led to the modification of the forced savings initiative proposed by the Government to make it more palatable to their members.

Effective social dialogue and cooperation between governments, employers’ organizations and workers’ organizations has once again proven indispensable to design and implement appropriate strategies and policies to address a crisis.

However, there are still challenges to overcome on the road of recovery. Trade unions must remain vigilant and insist on the use of social dialogue mechanisms at all relevant levels for decision-making.  They need to stay relevant during and beyond the crisis.

How can Trade unions assert their importance? The Global Trend Analysis Report provides some ideas on how to build an agenda for recovery and resilience: build knowledge and capacity; continue to promote workers’ priorities; provide new services; increase representative capacity; build political will; contribute to strengthening social dialogue mechanisms; expand partnerships and build new alliances and share information.

This will allow Trade unions to gain strength and play a more integral role in ensuring that measures taken in response to the dramatic social and economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis will support an equitable economic recovery, build resilience to face future crises and leave no one behind.