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Social dialogue between employers, workers and government can play a central role in managing the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the workplace and has great potential in ensuring that the livelihoods and opportunities of those hardest hit are protected,

according to a new report.

Social Dialogue, Skills and COVID-19, published jointly by the OECD, ILO and Global Deal Partnership, says the pandemic has exposed and intensified underlying inequality and is having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups already facing insecurity, such as the low-skilled, informal workers, youth and women.

The report argues that social dialogue and collective bargaining have a key role to play in building back a more sustainable economy in which the benefits of growth are distributed across the whole of society.

Agreements between business, trade unions and governments have often played an important role in establishing the short-time working arrangements aimed at protecting incomes and firms during lockdowns. The key ingredients have been commitments by employers not to fire workers while unions accept shortening working times and a lowering of wages. Governments have then stepped in with benefits or wage subsidies to make up for the wage shortfalls.

Such agreements can help shore up consumer confidence by keeping workers in jobs and maintaining incomes. The report looks at how such arrangements have worked in a number of countries, including in Germany, Italy and France. In Denmark, the job retention scheme managed to limit the rise in unemployment to 0.1 percentage point between February and May 2020. In Korea, social partners agreed to lift the employment retention subsidy from 63% to 75% with additional emergency support available for small businesses and workers on non-standard contracts.

The report points to the importance of involving all social partners in ensuring safe working conditions during the pandemic, particularly as individual workers may be even more reluctant to voice their concerns during the crisis for fear of losing their jobs. Social dialogue provides a forum to understand workers’ concerns and negotiate balanced approaches.

Presenting the report alongside ILO Director-General Guy Ryder and Swedish Trade Minister Anna Hallberg, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said, “Social dialogue has shaped the policies that supported workers and sustained the economy, helping to boost confidence during the crisis. Social dialogue’s importance is not limited to the immediate management of the crisis. It also helps countries to meet their UN 2030 Agenda commitments and prepare for global trends such as digitalisation, globalisation and climate change.”

With many of the essential ‘frontline’ workers on low wages, such as those in healthcare, food processing, or for instance supermarket cashiers, setting appropriate minimum wages via statutory provisions and/or collective bargaining and achieving balanced decisions through social dialogue can improve standards of living. Fairness and equity will result in a more resilient labour market and a stronger economic recovery, the report says.

Beyond the challenges brought by the COVID-19 crisis, labour markets are having to adapt to technological change creating a demand for new skills. The report says clear policies and mechanisms are needed to promote lifelong learning and skills development. Social dialogue is needed at national, sectoral and firm level, and involving workers in the decisions can facilitate effective adoption of the skills development programmes.