What does the future of worker-management dialogue look like?

Globalisation has had a profound impact on the power dynamic between workers and industry. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 450 million people work in supply chain related jobs worldwide.¹ This includes the garment and footwear industry, worth US$2.4 trillion.² Although this industry can offer opportunities for economic and social development, it often presents serious human rights risks that many companies have failed to mitigate and respond to effectively. While research demonstrates the value of worker voice in improving working conditions, the distance and power relationship between workers in their workplace and the forces controlling their economic conditions is greater than ever before.


The idea that workers and managers should engage in negotiations about working conditions has come to be known in the world of labour relations as ‘social dialogue.’ Social dialogue can look very different from place to place, and in some countries it even has formal, government-backed structures. The International Labor Organisation describes social dialogue at its broadest as including ‘all types of negotiation, consultation and exchange of information between, or among, representatives of governments, employers and workers on issues of common interest,’ although arguably the most effective forms of social dialogue involve trade unions who are empowered to negotiate on behalf of workers.

Social dialogue has often faced barriers to implementation in different times and places. However, economic, political and technological changes over the past few decades, as globalisation has taken hold, have created a ‘perfect storm’ of threats to social dialogue – both the processes through which negotiations happen, and the principle that the power and economic relations between workers and industry should be governed by negotiation. This is particularly true of the garment industry, where the size, complexity, mobility and global reach of the industry have created an especially difficult environment for social dialogue to succeed.

So in an increasingly globalised world, where employment relations keep changing and new technologies are emerging every day, what does the future of social dialogue look like? What do we need to change to ensure that workers’ voices and experiences are heard and used to shape the policies and practices in the garment industry?

To look further into these questions, the Strategic Partnership for Garment Supply Chain Transformation³ has partnered with the New Conversations Project (NCP) which aims to promote dialogue between multiple stakeholders in order to create actionable strategies for improving the work lives of workers in global supply chains, particularly in the garment sector. NCP, which comes out of Cornell University, believes that cultivating sustainable supply chains demands engaging with the variety of public and private institutions and practices that make up the regulatory and normative eco-system. In other words, the stakeholders who are part of or influence the global supply chains – workers, trade unions, suppliers, brands, civil society organisations and governments – need to be part of creating the solution.

The joint collaboration, titled “Social Dialogue in the 21st Century” is based on the idea that the structure and behaviour of the modern, globalised garment industry has created a set of new obstacles that prevent a healthy social dialogue. The project is designed to help create an enabling environment for social dialogue by doing three things:

  • Identifying and documenting the major barriers to a healthy social dialogue in the global garment industry;
  • Identifying and evaluating root causes and possible interventions that can help overcome those barriers;
  • Working with partner organisations to test some of those interventions, with an eye to developing strategies that can be more widely applied

In addition to desk research, a large focus of the project will be on have open conversations with various stakeholders in the garment supply chain. NCP’s methodology follows a unique approach to engaging stakeholders; rather than engaging with stakeholders around specific negotiations, or specific factories, brands or local trade unions, NCP aims to create spaces where stakeholders can step back from their daily obligations and consider the larger issues facing the industry, and to reach beyond historically rooted conflicts and approaches. It is designed to stimulate deeper exploration within and across stakeholder silos to focus on the critical challenges, questions and substantive solutions.

NCP Project Director Anna Burger says, “It is clear that the status quo of social dialogue in the garment industry is not working. There needs to be open and frank discussions of why the current state of affairs isn’t working, but these discussions need to be developed and constructed in a way that make clear that they are not an attack on any party, nor a negotiating tactic to weaken the other side in future negotiations. At NCP we encourage stakeholders to ‘leave their weapons at the door’ and work with us to openly look for sustainable solutions.”

"At NCP we encourage stakeholders to ‘leave their weapons at the door’ and work with us to openly look for sustainable solutions" -- Anna Burger, Director of New Conversations Project

Following the release of the first public report in July 2019, The Threads will sit down with lead researchers of the project to talk more about what the initial findings and new conversations have to say about worker empowerment in the garment industry. The ‘Dialogue in the 21st Century’ project will continue running until the end of 2020 when an international conference will be held to share learnings and proposals for how to address and improve the current barriers to impactful social dialogue.

¹ ILO welcomes G7 steps to foster fair production in global supply chains, International Labour Organisation, 2015
² Labour Rights in the Garment Industry, Human Rights Watch
³The Strategic Partnership for Garment Supply Chain Transformation is an innovative programme aimed at improving labour conditions in the garment industry. It is an initiative undertaken by Fair Wear Foundation, Mondiaal FNV and CNV Internationaal, with support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It also includes a varied network of organizations in Europe. Projects are being developed in eight garment-producing countries in Asia and Africa: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Vietnam.

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