ILO Policy Brief on COVID-19

Pillar 4: Relying on social dialogue for solutions

Previous global crises have shown that governments cannot on their own overcome the challenges stemming from strong shocks. Given the unprecedented nature of the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, social dialogue involving governments and employers’ and workers’ representative organizations is more important than ever.

Previous global crises have shown that governments cannot on their own overcome the challenges stemming from strong shocks. Given the unprecedented nature of the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, social dialogue involving governments and employers’ and workers’ representative organizations is more important than ever.

Social dialogue includes all types of negotiation, consultation and exchange of information between or among representatives of governments, workers and employers on issues of common interest in the areas of economic, labour and social policy. It can take place at the national, sectoral and enterprise levels. Free, independent, strong and representative employers’ and workers’ organizations are prerequisites for effective social dialogue, as are trust among the various actors and respect on the part of governments for the autonomy of the social partners.1

Through dialogue and concerted action by governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations, policies and programmes can be designed and implemented to deal with the immediate health crisis and to mitigate the effects of some of these measures on employment and incomes. These actions can ensure safety and health at work, extend social protection coverage, help enterprises (including SMEs) to adapt and avoid bankruptcy, keep workers in their jobs and secure people’s incomes. This will in turn foster demand and economic recovery. Consultation with the most representative employers’ and workers’ organizations can help to strengthen the commitment of employers and workers to joint action with governments, leading to a more sustainable and effective response to the crisis. 2

Social dialogue will play an important role as countries move from efforts to suppress transmission of the virus to the next stages of response to the crisis: planning the resumption of economic activities, extending support measures and promoting a sustained and robust economic recovery. Social dialogue can help reach collective solutions that take into account the needs of enterprises and workers; it also promotes stability and public confidence.

In many countries, social dialogue institutions already exist at the national, sectoral and enterprise levels and, in line with international labour standards, they can facilitate social dialogue on the COVID-19 crisis and its impact. Employers’ and workers’ organizations will require support so that they can be resilient, continue to play an effective role in shaping solutions through social dialogue and provide assistance to their own members. Governments will need to ensure an enabling environment and promote effective and inclusive social dialogue. This is all the more important in fragile and conflict-affected countries, where employers’ and workers’ organizations are often weak and social dialogue may be very limited or even non existent.

Strengthen the capacity and resilience of employers’ and workers’ organizations

Employer and business membership organizations

Employer and business membership organizations (EBMOs)3 across the world are actively responding to the COVID-19 crisis. In particular, they are supporting government action to protect public health and formulating business needs in respect of government measures aimed at mitigating the economic and social impact of the crisis. They are drawing up evidence-based policy recommendations to enable economic and social recovery, and are supporting “building back better” approaches to the recovery process. Additionally, EBMOs are engaging in tripartite and bipartite dialogue on policy issues linked to the crisis mitigation and promoting recovery. They are deepening collaboration with workers’ organizations and demonstrating in practice the value of social partnership by collectively providing quick and innovative solutions. It is therefore important to ensure that EBMOs have the necessary skills and tools to reach out to members quickly, assess members’ needs and the challenges they face, analyse the business environment, and propose policy solutions.

Employer and business membership organizations are mobilizing the private sector to support national efforts by, for example, establishing funds to strengthen national health capacities, providing financial support for groups in vulnerable situations, and requesting their members to establish new production lines for masks and ventilators.

Furthermore, EBMOs are providing direct services to member enterprises to help them cope with the crisis. For example, they are disseminating information and guidance (e.g. on how companies will be affected by new laws or restrictions) and providing support on issues such as occupational safety and health at work, workplace hygiene, teleworking, workers’ compensation, redundancies, access to government support measures, employment relations and business continuity plans. Such activities by EBMOs help to limit the spread of the virus, promote good communication in the workplace and help to ensure that businesses can continue operating as effectively as possible.

At the same time, EBMOs are having to adjust their own mode of operation as a result of the crisis. Demand for services has changed, as members are not spending as much as before on generic training while advisory services are increasingly sought after. Moreover, EBMOs are transforming the delivery of services, moving away from face-to-face interactions to digital and online support. Given that a sizeable proportion of their members may become insolvent, EBMOs are likely to face a decrease in revenue and subscriptions, and so they will need to devise strategies proactively to retain existing members and reach out to new ones. As economies gradually reopen, EMBOs will have to prepare their members to operate in a recession economy in the short and medium term.

Workers’ organizations

In many countries, workers’ organizations4 have been at the forefront of the response to some of the challenges brought about by the crisis. For example, they have been proactively developing policy proposals for government action on social protection and employment retention schemes to be discussed in the framework of social dialogue institutions. They have successfully influenced and/or supported national policies to protect lives, jobs and incomes, particularly in relation to wage and income support for freelancers, the self employed and gig workers; loan relief for rent or mortgage payments; and the provision of free health care.

Workers’ organizations have also been negotiating measures to mitigate the immediate negative socio-economic impact of the crisis on workers – for example, OSH measures and measures related to working time (including teleworking arrangements) and paid leave. Such negotiations have been carried out, inter alia, through collective bargaining agreement and bilateral agreements at various levels.

Workers’ organizations have been very active in providing information and developing guidance for their members covering such matters as hygiene measures and physical distancing, workers’ rights and obligations at the workplace and beyond (OSH, working time, retrenchment, etc.) and access to social benefits and government support schemes during the pandemic.

Moreover, workers’ organizations have been adapting existing services and developing new ones (e.g. counselling services on OSH, psychosocial risks, violence, harassment and stress, social protection). They are seeking to extend those services to workers who are traditionally under-represented in the trade union movement and to those not in formal employment.

The ongoing crisis provides workers’ organizations with even more reason to engage further with the United Nations Development System (UNDS), which is responsible for supporting the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the national level. Now more than ever, trade unions should play an important role in helping to identify their countries’ needs and in tailoring the UNDS response to meet workers’ needs and expectations. The same, indeed, is true of employers’ organizations with respect to their members.

Strengthen the capacity of governments

Creating an enabling environment for sound labour relations

The State plays a critical role in providing the necessary environment for social dialogue by establishing legal and institutional frameworks based on international labour standards; providing services that enable all parties to engage in effective social dialogue; and promoting and realizing the “enabling rights” of freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.5

Addressing the social and economic impact of the pandemic in an effective way requires strong labour administration. It is therefore important that governments equip the institutions responsible for labour administration and other relevant State agencies with the necessary institutional and knowledge capacity so that they can fulfil their policy functions. Given the downward pressure on wages and the increase in terminations of employment as a result of the crisis, the number of individual and collective disputes is expected to increase. Governments should ensure that institutions dealing with the prevention and resolution of labour disputes have adequate resources so that, despite a burgeoning caseload, they can resolve disputes promptly and provide all workers with access to justice.

Strengthen social dialogue, collective bargaining and labour relations institutions and processes

Strengthen social dialogue on socio-economic policies

Bipartite and tripartite social dialogue can help to devise robust and tailored policy solutions to the immediate challenges brought about by the crisis. Such policies may include promoting economic resilience and the sustainability of enterprises, limiting redundancies and providing income support to workers and their families.6 Social dialogue must be inclusive so as to ensure that the socio-economic policies adopted address the needs of the most vulnerable workers and enterprises as a matter of priority, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 8 (“Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all”) and with the pledge by States Members of the United Nations to “leave no one behind”. As already mentioned, the interests of workers in the informal economy and of micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises need to be adequately represented and taken into account.

In a number of countries, governments have consulted with, or even engaged, representatives of employers’ and workers’ organizations when designing policies and programmes pursuing such objectives as: strengthening of the health system; definition of “essential sectors” of the economy; the extension of social protection coverage; the provision of support to enterprises, including SMEs, to help them maintain jobs and meet various financial obligations; ensuring occupational safety and health at work; and income support for those no longer able to work.

Employers' and workers' organizations have a key part to play in the design and implementation of public support measures for the sectors most directly affected by the pandemic, such as civil aviation, shipping, hotels, catering and tourism, retail and trade, manufacturing and culture. They can ensure that measures to protect the livelihoods of workers and enterprises are implemented effectively and are targeted at those most in need.

While governments have the ultimate responsibility for the design and implementation of public policies, the social partners can make a decisive contribution to shaping these policies, complementing and supporting tripartite and direct government action. Moreover, bipartite and tripartite social dialogue can help to devise longer-term policies and strategies for the post-crisis period with a view to boosting productivity and economic growth, promoting transitions to formality, and ensuring social cohesion, resilience and stability.

Strengthen social dialogue on conditions of work and employment

Social dialogue on working conditions and employment retention measures – notably through collective bargaining – should be promoted and strengthened to ensure the protection of workers and support business continuity. More specifically, employers’ and workers’ organizations have a key role to play in designing solutions tailored to the specific needs of an industry, sector or enterprise. Negotiated agreements can help to balance competing interests in times of crisis. The joint solutions reached by employers and/or their organizations and workers’ organizations at all levels reinforce and supplement the policies adopted by the public authorities.

The promotion of social dialogue in sectors providing critical services during the pandemic – such as health, food retail and public emergency and security services – can ensure that protection measures are tailored to the specific needs of these sectors.7 Appropriate workplace measures should be introduced to keep workers informed of occupational safety and health policies and procedures (including access to personal protective equipment), and to ensure that workers have a voice in their design and implementation. Social dialogue is also important for policies aimed at supporting business continuity and productivity while ensuring occupational safety and health in workplaces.

The social partners in many countries have developed joint guidelines and codes of good practice with a view to facilitating people’s return to work and reactivation of the economy. Collective agreements have been concluded covering such areas as health and safety, teleworking arrangements, short-time work, pay freezes or adjustments, leave arrangements, employment retention and the promotion of business performance. Collective bargaining will play a crucial role during the economic downturn when it comes to designing employment retention measures and maintaining business performance.

1 ILO: Resolution concerning the second recurrent discussion on social dialogue and tripartism, International Labour Conference, 107th Session, Geneva, 2018.
2 See ILO: Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 (No. 205), International Labour Conference, 106th Session, Geneva, 2017; ILO: Workers’ Guide to Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation (No. 205) (Geneva, 2019).
3 See the web page of the ILO Bureau for Employers’ Activities.
4 See the web page of the ILO Bureau for Workers’ Activities.
5 See ILO: ILO standards and COVID-19 (coronavirus): Frequently asked questions (Geneva, 2020); ILO: Collective bargaining: A policy guide (Geneva, 2015).
6 See ILO: The need for Social Dialogue in addressing the COVID-19 Crisis ILO policy brief, 5 May 2020.
7 ILO: COVID-19 and the world of work: Sectoral impact, responses and recommendations web page [accessed 10 May 2020]