Rebooting social dialogue
30. august 2016 Av: Liv Tørres
The Annual Labour Law Conference took place in Gauteng South Africa last week, – a prestigious conference that has been arranged for almost three decades. There was, however, a serious background to this year’s conference: Unemployment at around 40%, about half of the population living in poverty, a looming recession, huge political tensions after the local elections, and social partners struggling with fragmentation, division and major conflicts. In this setting, social dialogue between labour, employers and the state is urgently needed, but far from materialising. Therefore, how to reboot it was one of the main topics at the conference.
Social dialogue has become a buzzword all over the world as a tool to achieve better working conditions, higher living standards and higher productivity. In short, social dialogue is seen as a miracle recipe for sustainable development, decent work and growth. Last year, the social dialogue process in Tunisia, represented by the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Quartet consists of four organisations representing different sectors of the Tunisian society: trade unions, employers, lawyers and human rights activists. When politicians were faced with a serious political deadlock and Tunisia was on the brink of civil war, this group representing the civil society played the role of mediator and became a driving force for political change.
The organisations in the National Dialogue Quartet were themselves to some degree influenced by policy-making and organising in the Nordic Countries. The most well developed social dialogue systems are generally regarded to be found here, where the state, employers and trade unions negotiate labour market issues and working conditions, but also – to some extent – welfare, pension systems, health-policy etc. The welfare system and the stable democracy we see in Norway, for example, are both products of dialogue and negotiations between the state, the parties in the labour market, and organisations, in a fine balance of power and a complicated web of institutions.
The social dialogue rests on the one hand on strong and democratically organised labour and employers federations. On the other hand, it rests on, but also reinforces and provides a framework for, a solid collective bargaining system.
Various features have been part of the social pacts and social dialogue through the years. Wage moderation, industrial peace, active labour market policies, job creation and welfare benefits have been elements of various “pacts” or bargained deals where all the parties in the labour market have seen benefits in tripartite agreements and a centralized negotiation system. The Solidarity Alternative introduced in the 90s aimed at increasing employment, securing welfare policies and improving the Norwegian economy through wage moderation and active labour market policies. In other words, the Norwegian, or even the Nordic, model may be explained as “making the cake bigger” by distributing the “pieces of cake” differently. And most of our political parties agree that this is a crucial pillar of our democracy and welfare system as well as an important method for assuring smooth transitions in difficult times.
Contrasts between South Africa and the Nordic countries seem stark. While South Africa has the highest inequality in the world, the Nordic countries have the smallest wage and wealth gaps. While South Africa has staggering unemployment, the Nordic countries have some of the world´s lowest. While South Africa has astounding poverty rates, the Nordic countries have some of the world´s lowest poverty rates and lowest risk of people falling into poverty. However, while the differences may now seem too stark for it to look feasible with any “Nordic style social dialogue” in South Africa, there have previously been several similarities between South Africa and the Nordic countries. Twenty years back, Norway and South Africa were both highly organised countries with people on average being members of 3 to 4 organisations each. Thirty-forty years ago, the South African trade union movement spearheaded political change in ways not so different from what unions had done in the Nordic countries a few decades earlier. There were strong trade unions both in South Africa and the Nordic countries and there was a well-established contact between them. Twenty years ago, there was a strong collective bargaining system emerging in South Africa, which was similar to its Nordic equivalents. South Africa has also tested out similar methodology and arenas of social dialogue before. South Africa twenty years ago was on the threshold of developing social dialogue through the National Economic and Development Council (Nedlac). The Nordic social dialogue model did not develop out of a surplus situation, but out of need and desperation. All parties in the Nordic countries saw the need to find common solutions to the massive problems they were unable to solve on their own, not so different from the starting ground the South Africans have now.
There is now an urgent need in South Africa for labour, employers and the state to actually sit down and start talks about a major overhaul of the economy and the social fabrics of society. “The Nordic social dialogue model” is definitely feasible in South Africa. South Africa can, and must definitely, now reboot social dialogue with aims of growth and a more equitable and stable society. But what are the criteria for social dialogue to be rebooted?
Social dialogue is merely a tool for goals set by the social partners. One criterion or precondition for successful social dialogue is the actual respect for the fundamental rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining. Another is the actual political will among all partners to realise that they can achieve more together than on their own. So are strong, independent trade unions and employers’ organisations with the capacity and access to relevant information in order to participate in social dialogue and the ability to “deliver” for their constituencies, and an enabling legal and institutional framework, including a collective bargaining system. Last, but not least; social dialogue requires real high quality leadership. The big question is whether South Africa has what it takes. South Africa twenty years back, and even ten years back, definitely did have what it took. And it is possible to rebuild it. It will not, and cannot, be done in a year, but some form of social dialogue is definitely needed to bring the country forward. It is possible, but the job has to be done. And the work must start now.