Last week over a hundred and fifty people gathered at the International Labour Organisation headquarters in Geneva to take part in a dialogue about wages and working hours in the industries behind most of what we wear; the textile, clothing, leather and footwear industries.
In fact it was a dialogue about dialogue. Social dialogue to be precise. The ILO is a champion of social dialogue, which it defines 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.” It is now broadly recognised that such dialogue is essential if we are to make progress in ensuring more workers are being treated according to their rights.
And the people gathered beside Lake Geneva last week were representatives of those groups. Between them they held the fate of millions of workers in this vast, widely dispersed predominantly female workforce in their hands.
The dialogue took place according to a time-honoured formula; the ILO had prepared an excellent issues paper outlining the facts. Each group first met separately to discuss its response to the paper. Then all met in plenary in a vast, softly carpeted, softly lit hall on soft padded chairs at polished wooden desks.
Workers’ representatives sat in one block of seats, governments’ in the middle and employers’ on the right; we observers sat in a row behind everyone and all of us faced the top table where Madam Chair, flanked by members of the ILO Secretariat, sat with her gavel raised and ready to strike the conclusion of sessions and the agreement of points. The room was hushed, until you fitted the earpiece from which emitted the current speaker’s voice, or the voice of a translator into or from half a dozen languages.
It was impressive that so many people had crossed so many oceans and travelled such great distances to take part in this dialogue – they came from China, Bangladesh, Brazil, Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, India… and many more countries. But I began to wonder whether, despite now sitting in the same room, the distances between them were still as vast if they had stayed at home.
In the group discussions each party had the opportunity to reinforce their sense of ‘otherness’ and to entrench their positions further. In plenary, they sat on their separate islands of polished wood whispering across oceans of carpet and through the veils of translation.
On the third day the employers’ representatives announced that they did not agree with the statement that “wage levels in the sector are generally low”.
For two and a half days they had been listening to impassioned statements from the workers’ representatives (translated in calm, measured tones) about workers being unable survive on their salaries, about having to work excessive hours to make ends meet, about suffering malnutrition since the basic needs shopping basket was up to six times more than their salary. They had read the issues paper which stated “wages in the textiles and clothing industries reportedly continue to be low.” And that “In some production countries the minimum wage remains below the national subsistence minimum.”
The entire premise of the forum that they had travelled so far to attend was that workers in the industries were generally paid less and worked longer hours than was good for them (or than was their right) and yet they could not bring themselves to agree to this statement.
But before you condemn them, put yourself in their shoes. As the issues paper pointed out, “the textiles and clothing industries are characterized by high volatility, low predictability and generally low profit margins... Competition is high at all levels, and players are constantly seeking ways to decrease costs and maintain or improve profit margins. Industry experts predict that brands that are also retailers will face smaller margins and rising costs, and that more retailers will go out of business or have to reduce their operations.” So, when they are already fighting to survive, how could they even begin to consider increasing wages? Wages in these industries, while lower than in manufacturing, are often higher than in other sectors, like agriculture. That’s why people in China, India and Bangladesh flock from the countryside to work in garment and footwear factories. Some are even paid more than the labour inspectors sent to check on their working conditions. So, to employers, “low” is a relative, even a subjective, term. For them to vote to increase wages would feel like ’turkeys voting for Christmas’.
Meanwhile, government representatives rowed a careful path between the polarised islands, careful not to say or commit to too much, careful to paint their governments in as positive a light as possible. And indeed there was much that was positive to share. The Philippines shared how the ILO helped them increase the number of labour inspectors to one per 120 enterprises (at the previous ratio each enterprise could be inspected just once every 16 years), Ethiopia spoke passionately about its commitment to gender equity at work, Ghana described how it was trying to boost employment and end poverty by reviving its textile industry (in the face of fierce foreign competition), and Brazil shared its tripartite social dialogue approach to shaping labour laws. Some government representatives, notably China (the group leader) and Germany did their best to mediate between workers’ and employers’ representatives.
But ultimately each group remained firmly entrenched on its polished wooden island with, apparently, oceans of mistrust and misunderstanding between them. By 5.00 pm on the last day, half an hour before the conference was due to end, only one of the 27 paragraphs in the Points of Consensus paper that the ILO Secretariat had drafted based on the previous days’ discussions remained uncontested. It was this; “Social dialogue also plays an important role in setting of labour legislation; the Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976 (no 144), is of particular importance in this context.”
At this point, the Chair summoned the leaders of each group to the front desk. They rose from their islands and crossed the ocean. They came together and stood side by side in front of the Chair and in a few minutes had agreed, if not on the issues, at least a way forward.
I have no doubt that much positive networking, learning and sharing happened in Geneva last week. I expect also that those facilitating the dialogue managed to steer the social partners towards agreement on many issues by the close of the forum [see points of consensus, published since]. But the biggest lesson from the week may be that if we all entered into dialogue with a genuine willingness to transcend our groups (tribes/sects/communities/interest groups, whatever), to cross over whatever political, conceptual, social or economic ocean separates us, to meet face to face, talk person to person, perhaps we would have a real chance of resolving some of the huge challenges that face workers and the businesses that keep them in work.