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ILO High-Level Tripartite Regional Symposium on Social Dialogue

ADDIS ABABA (ILO News) - The Geneva-based International Labour Office is organizing a symposium which will involve representatives of governments, employer organizations and trade unions from 20 African countries in order to promote the importance of social dialogue in the development process.

Press release | 20 October 1999

ADDIS ABABA (ILO News) - The Geneva-based International Labour Office is organizing a symposium which will involve representatives of governments, employer organizations and trade unions from 20 African countries in order to promote the importance of social dialogue in the development process.

The meeting, to be held in Addis Ababa between 20-22 October, is expected to focus the attention of key decision makers, including seven Ministers of Labour, on methods of promoting social dialogue in order to strengthen economic possibilities in the region while promoting democracy and social equity. The symposium will be formally opened by His Excellency Dr. Negaso Gidada, President of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia in the United Nations Conference Centre.

The gathering will explore methods of improving social dialogue between and within countries and giving a greater voice in the formation of social and economic policy to particularly disadvantaged groups of workers, including women, migrants, disabled people and workers in the informal and agricultural sectors of the economy.

Ms. Katherine Hagen, the ILO's Executive Director for Social Dialogue and head of the delegation, points out that the conjuncture of massive technological changes at the international level combined with economic adversity and rapid cultural change across the continent makes it imperative that "the social partners in Africa enhance social dialogue in order to promote sound systems of labour relations, paying particular attention to vulnerable social groups."

She said that structural adjustment and change in African societies have brought uncertainty in their wake. In the past these changes were often imposed on reluctant governments without the opportunity to consult affected groups in society through a process of social dialogue. Increasingly, there is growing acceptance of the fact that these changes, while they might be for the best, simply cannot work "unless they are accompanied by processes of dialogue that create an equitable way of sharing the benefits and sacrifices of change".

The ILO official added: "In particular, insecurity of employment has grown considerably while the traditional social protection schemes are being increasingly eroded, and such distortions to sound and humane economic and social policy can be avoided when the voices of the social partners are heard".

The symposium will be carried out in collaboration with the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Pan-African Employers' Confederation (PEC), the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and the ILO. A background paper prepared for the meeting points out that institutions for social dialogue, in the form standing consultative, mostly tripartite bodies are an increasing feature of rapidly evolving societies. Among recent initiatives in Africa, the ILO cites South Africa's National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), as "the most elaborate national institution for social dialogue" operating in the region.

Established by an act of Parliament in 1994, NEDLAC is made up of representatives of employer organizations, trade unions, the State and community and development organizations. While providing a broad framework for social dialogue on national social and economic policies, "NEDLAC has been successful in encouraging the creation of an agency to promote investment in providing advisory services in the adoption of certain laws."

The ILO paper also cited a number of other national institutions as contributing significantly to social dialogue, including the High-level Advisory Council in Egypt, the National Labour Advisory Committee in Ghana, the National Joint Consultative Council in Kenya and the National Labour Advisory Board in Nigeria, Malawi and Tanzania.

The report points out a number of obstacles to the fulfilment of goals for social dialogue in Africa, including the wide gaps between practical applications and normative prescriptions. Collective bargaining agreements for the determination of wages and working conditions are handicapped by such factors as underdeveloped economies which limit the scope for improvement of working conditions, the dominance of the public sector, where the state fixes conditions of employment by statute, restriction of wage increases imposed by economic development plans and prescriptions of the Bretton Woods institutions limiting the scope of wage negotiations, coupled with the weakness of trade unions, especially at the level of enterprise." Other kinds of institutional arrangements for more specific needs, such as vocational training on occupational safety and health also encounter similar barriers.

Although tripartite bodies are operative across Africa, they often have only advisory roles for important and sensitive issues. Moreover, the influence of governments tends to predominate and in some cases the selection of workers and employers representatives is done directly by governments rather than by the respective organizations. Many labour administrations lack the administrative means and resources necessary to enforce labour policies, with manpower and resource allocations often falling far short of what is necessary.

The ILO meeting will seek to highlight the importance of creating and sustaining a range of permanent fora for social dialogue and the need to strengthen the social partners and other democratic civic organizations to play effective and responsible roles in society. Most importantly, this needs to happen at the national level, but there are also important initiatives which can be undertaken to bring countries together at the subregional and regional levels - and even at the international level to engage in social dialogue over common concerns.

The Organization, which includes 174 member States, says that a further indication of the resolve to strengthen social dialogue in Africa is the growing number of ratifications of ILO conventions, including the Convention on Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) No. 144, which has been ratified by 22 African countries.