Supporting worker empowerment

Empowering workers starts with social dialogue

Social dialogue can sound like a lofty concept but in reality its simple: it’s the process of workers and their representatives and management discussing and negotiating the conditions of work.

It comes into focus when we consider an average garment worker. Let’s look at a female garment worker in Indonesia for example. For the past two months she has been asked to work overtime in order to ensure that a brand’s order is delivered on time. She can’t afford to say no: she needs the extra money, plus management has indicated that workers will be dismissed if they don’t comply. She is working twelve or more hours a day but is not being paid overtime pay for those additional hours. She wants to speak up and demand that the factory pays her what she’s due, but she knows that if she does she will be harassed by management, or, at worst, fired. With a family to feed at home, that’s too big of a risk for her to take. Without the ability to come together with her fellow workers to complain and demand better collectively, she and her colleagues are left powerless. A process of social dialogue could help her and her colleagues talk to and negotiate with management, but first some fundamental rights need to be in place.

Firstly, workers need to have the ability to form or join organisations that represent them, namely trade unions. When an independent union is in place, it has the legal mandate and authority of workers to speak and negotiate on their behalf. Because it is organised and serves to strengthen workers’ voices, and because of its protected legal status, a union is the best way for workers to be represented and ensure systematic change occurs. Secondly, the right of these unions to negotiate and make agreements with management must be respected. Once these collective bargaining agreements are in place, they ultimately provide protection for workers, ensuring that our female worker above is entitled to and receives double pay for the overtime hours worked.

Over the last hundred years, and all around the globe, unions have been able to improve the conditions of work, for example by negotiating for a maximum number of working hours per week, protecting female workers through maternity leave and pay guarantees, increasing minimum wages, ensuring the rights of part-time workers, and being involved in regulations for occupational health and safety. Many of the protections at work that we enjoy today are due to the hard work of unions. Ultimately, the ability for unions to form, function and negotiate is essential for social dialogue to take place and result in improved working conditions. Social dialogue is the means for worker organisations and management to come together to discuss, address and negotiate for improvements and it is an essential channel for addressing other labour issues or violations.

Resources

Social Dialogue in the 21st Century Project: Listening Phase Report

This report summarises the initial stages of the Social Dialogue in the 21st Century project, a collaboration between the New Conversation…