Briefing 8.1 - Social dialogue and working in partnership

2. Social dialogue between employers and trade unions in the workplace 

Social dialogue models vary from one country to another, and can exist at the national, regional, sectoral and workplace level. They are based on the principle of ‘freedom of association’, including the right to form and join a trade union and negotiate collective agreements, which is embedded in international human rights standards.

Freedom of Association

  • Freedom of association is vitally important in enhancing the bargaining power and voice of workers involved in global supply chains.
  • Trade union recognition in the workplace is crucial to ensuring decent work and pay, improved conditions of employment, non-discrimination and to preventing sexual harassment and violence. 
  • Employers and trade unions working together have a key role to play in tackling violence, including sexual harassment, in the workplace.

However, factories and farms providing goods in global supply chains are frequently non-unionized or have weak union structures, and in many cases there is direct hostility to trade unions. For example, widespread abuses of workers’ rights, including violations of the right to freedom of association in the garment and textiles sectors in India and Bangladesh have been reported in the ITUC’s Global Rights Index (2015) and by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (2014).

The increasing participation of women in global supply chain workplaces, coupled with advocacy campaigns carried out by women’s organizations and trade unions, have resulted in gender-based violence in the world of work receiving greater public attention. In addition, the ILO and several MSIs have highlighted gender-based violence and other labour rights’ issues in global supply chains.

Low pay, job insecurity, lack of union representation and gender-based violence in the workplace are inextricably linked. Workers will be at a greater risk of gender-based violence if they are denied the right to freedom of association and decent work. Eliminating sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women are an essential element of decent work. This is relevant across the whole supply chain – from local workplace negotiations and collective bargaining through to global advocacy and campaigns –  to change the behaviour of lead companies. Ending violence against women, sexual harassment and discrimination can provide a useful starting point for developing social dialogue between unions and managers, particularly in the many factories where there is no union representation or any history of management-worker negotiations.

Social dialogue can enable the voice of women workers to be heard as a basis for negotiating workplace policies, complaints systems and collective agreements. While NGOs can effectively campaign on workplace conditions, NGOs cannot negotiate collective agreements on conditions of work. That is why an effective right to form and join a trade union is important.

Working together employers and trade unions can play an important role in highlighting the problem of sexual harassment and violence, and in negotiating policies and procedures to address sexual harassment and violence and where possible, include them in collective agreements. Importantly, trade union officials have often been trained in grievance handling procedures and can help develop appropriate processes and support training for members. Research by Professor Stephanie Barrientos (2013 and 2014) found that unions have had a positive impact improving conditions of work in global supply chains. Evidence from the Ugandan floriculture industry (see Case Study 8.3) provides an example of an effective union campaign for a collective bargaining agreement, which resulted in permanent employment increasing by 75 per cent between 2001 and 2011, with significant gains also made in other areas.