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Social dialogue in 6 questions

What exactly do you mean by social dialogue? And what does it achieve? We will start with some questions and answers in order to give you a good idea of the value and added value of social dialogue.

1. What does social dialogue mean?


Social dialogue means consultation between trade unions, employers and government about 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 workers, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy.


For CNV Internationaal social dialogue is not only a fundamental objective but also an instrument to achieve important goals. 

Social dialogue is used to enter into dialogue, also with people and groups who would otherwise not be heard. Social dialogue could be seen as a way of giving workers and vulnerable groups a voice. This is the fundamental objective of social dialogue. Additionally, social dialogue is an intervention tool. It can be used to improve working conditions and income. Or, social dialogue as a means to achieve results.  

2.What is the objective? 

Research and experience show that sustainable and structural improvements in working conditions can only be achieved through consultation. Social dialogue ensures a level playing field between social partners (trade unions and employers) and government. 

This approach results in inclusive economic development. And equally important: agreements which are reached through social dialogue have proven to be more sustainable. 

This is because all stakeholders contributed to the outcome of the negotiations. Furthermore, the social partners do not change, regardless of incumbent governments and election campaigns. 

This means that they can focus on long-term solutions. Social dialogue ensures a participative democracy which leads to mutual trust, a reduction in inequality and increased support for (government) policy.  

3. Where and when?

Social dialogue can take place at various levels and take on different forms. Within a business, the trade union and employer negotiate about matters such as decent working hours, fair pay and safety at work. 

Constructive negotiations between trade unions and employer’s organisations can result in collective bargaining agreements. 

At the national level, social partners and government can reach agreements about national laws and regulations and compliance. 

On a global scale, social dialogue can lead to an improvement in working conditions. This kind of social dialogue may be instigated by the ILO with supply chains.  

4. Who are the participants 


A dialogue between employers and trade unions is called a ‘bipartite dialogue’. If the government participates in the discussions, it is called a ‘tripartite dialogue’. 

The so-called ‘multi-stakeholder’ dialogue is also increasingly common. The multi-stakeholder dialogue involves other relevant (social) organisations, as well as employers and trade unions. For example, youth organisations may take part if the dialogue concerns youth unemployment. 

In social dialogue between workers and the management of garments suppliers, western clothing brands at the end of the international supply chain can be involved. 

CNV Internationaal thinks that multi-stakeholder dialogue offers added value and supports its trade union partners in developing countries with the organisation of this type of dialogue. 

5. How does social dialogue work?

In an ideal situation, a social dialogue consists of the following steps: We also refer to this as: ‘the social dialogue cycle’. 

  • The first step consists of regular consultation and negotiations.
  • The agreements made are laid down in a written agreement.
  • This agreement must then be implemented.
  • Monitoring and evaluation is the final step.

After this which the cycle starts again. Social dialogue involves more than just consultation and the outcomes of this consultation. 

A proper consultation requires clear information, such as the figures for working conditions, for example. More information about the situation of the sector, the work or the company is also required. 

Information gives the negotiators arguments and counter arguments during the negotiations and strengthens their negotiating position. Or, as the saying goes: knowledge is power. 

Mutual trust and respect are essential for successful social dialogue.  

6. What is required for an effective social dialogue?


An effective social dialogue requires an adequate infrastructure. Nationally, this is provided by institutions such as the Economic Social Council (ESC). Furthermore, people must be allowed to negotiate.

This means that international basic labour rights are respected. These rights stipulate

  •  freedom of association (ILO convention 87) and 
  • the right to organise and collective bargaining (ILO convention 98) .

 It is also important that the social partners are independent, trustworthy and representative. Not only during the consultation, but also during the implementation of the agreements. 

Everybody must comply with the agreements. 

Finally, it is imperative that all parties involved are prepared to accept and implement the agreements. 

Social dialogue which is based on respect prevents labour unrest and leads to better results.