What is Social Dialogue?

Social dialogue is a consultation between trade unions, employers and the government about both, economic and social issues. The formal definition of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is as follows: “all types of negotiation, consultation or simply exchange of information between, or among, representatives of governments, employers and employees, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy” (ILO, 2018). It is based on the right to collective bargaining agreement and on freedom of association. Social dialogue incorporates each country’s historical, cultural, economic and political setting. Therefore, social dialogue is adopted based on the local circumstances, being diverse in legal framework, practices, and traditions, the process might vary from country to country.

Although the accepted definition of social dialogue mentioned before is very broad, there are various characteristics that indicate what cannot be considered as a social dialogue:

  1. Social dialogue does not include general information sharing on working conditions between employers and their employees. For example, annual employee contract negotiations are considered standard business practice.
  2. Social dialogue requires a two-way interaction between parties involved. For example, if an employer proposes a new policy which requires employees to work a certain number of hours and they do not have the opportunity to respond to this request, there is no social dialogue.

For more information on social dialogue, also see Benefits of Social Dialogue, the Video Library and the Resource Library.

Typology of social dialogue (click here for more)

Social dialogue has many dimensions that vary depending on context. It is necessary to make a typology of a social dialogue to identify further actions to achieve a desired outcome. Figure 1 presents main dimensions: type of parties involved; a degree of institutionalization and degree of engagement. It is important to know these characteristics to understand which type of social dialogue would be successful in your specific context.

Figure 1. Characteristics of social dialogues

There can be several forms of a social dialogue. First, it can be either bipartite or tripartite. Bipartite dialogue involves labour and management or trade unions or companies. It also includes discussions, consultations and negotiations between employers and employees (or their representatives). Tripartite social dialogue includes the participation of the government officials and possibly other social parties, for example, to discuss policy area e.g. social protection, employment, or taxes. Second, social dialogue can have a different degree of initialization, by being institutionalized, incorporating policies and structures, or being informal, taking place based on a specific situation. Third, other characteristics of the social dialogue define the degree to which parties are engaged. They can either be directly engaged, for example, one-on-one dialogue or indirectly when an organization or person represents the interest of the involved parties.

Social dialogue can happen at the local, regional, national and multi-national levels. In addition, it can be at the enterprise, inter-sectoral, or sectoral levels. The nature of the outcome of a social dialogue can also vary, for example, be either binding or non-binding. There are several usual activities of social dialogue including consultations, negotiations and sharing of the information.

Different forms of social dialogue (click here for more)

Various types of social dialogue mentioned before can take different forms, therefore, achieve different outcomes. It is important to know different forms of Social Dialogue to achieve the desired outcome by taking relevant steps. Table 2 provides an overview of bipartite and tripartite dialogues and its typical respective parties involved; forms of governance; social dialogue; and outcomes. However, these forms depend on a business context, to determine which ones are more successful. Please note that these are examples of forms and thus non-exhaustive.

Table 2. Forms of social dialogue

Before starting a social dialogue, it is important to define the desired outcome(s) and to recognize steps to undertake to achieve it. However, as mentioned before, the steps depend on a business context. To learn more about social dialogue please refer to ILO.

Barriers for brands (click here for more)

Brands might recognize the following barriers when working on FoA and CB:


  • Little understanding of how unions operate and how a unionized workforce can benefit the suppliers’ business. Hence brands can feel insufficiently equipped to explain to their suppliers why it is so important and how their business could benefit.
  • A lack of knowledge about the labour issues in general, and the specific situation in the brands’ sourcing country. For example, a lack of understanding about the situation of existing (often splintered) unions and worker participation at suppliers level (e.g. due to lack of insight provided by audits).
  • Apprehension about stimulating union activity as unions have the reputation of organizing strikes or causing unrest. Also, apprehension to promote a union because they do not know their political affiliations.
  • Your suppliers’ factory owners/senior management might have negative mind sets about FoA and CB.
  • Lack of power at supplier level to be able to put issues on the agenda.
  • Not feeling mandated to discuss the issue, thinking that it is between supplier and their workers, none of my business.
  • Fear of extra workload, intensive engagement would require time.
  • Fear of increased costs to promote FoA/facilitate SD.
  • Fear of increased costs as an outcome of a CBA.
  • Not seeing the benefits of a functioning union and social dialogue at suppliers.
  • Believing consumers are not interested in the topic, not something we can communicate on as PR for brand (no PR value).