Social Dialogue in the 21st Century Project

Social Dialogue in the 21st Century is a collaborative project between Cornell Industrial and Labor Relations School’s New Conversations Project and the Strategic Partnership for Garment Supply Chain Transformation (SP), which includes Fair Wear Foundation, CNV Internationaal and Mondiaal FNV.

In the past 30 years, globalisation has sped up the flow of trade and capital, spread manufacturing and production across the globe and created vast and complex supply chains in the garment industry. This process has often outpaced the ability of governments, civil society, apparel brands, and the labour movement to sustainably improve working conditions and address labour rights violations in supply chains. In many garment-producing countries, social dialogue systems which could be used to address these violations have either eroded under globalisation or were never established to begin with.

The idea of social dialogue – promoting consensus-building and democratic involvement among stakeholders – can potentially deliver better working conditions, social stability and a level playing field. However, the social dialogue systems and strategies developed in the 20th century were never designed to cope with the complexities of globalisation. Freedom of association and collective bargaining rights remain fundamental, but it is time to rethink how collective bargaining should function in a global economy, and with whom trade unions need to be negotiating and at what level in order to deliver what workers need. For trade unions looking for ways to be more independent and effective, for factories tired of audits, for brands committed to better working conditions and respecting Freedom of Association and for governments looking to stabilise their garment industries and economic growth: Social dialogue systems designed for modern supply chains offer a way forward. The Social Dialogue in the 21st Century Project focuses on what those systems should look like moving forward.

Through research and stakeholder consultations, the project aims to create root-cause analysis of barriers to impactful social dialogue and develop concrete recommendations for overcoming those barriers in the global garment industry. The overall objectives are:

  • Identify the major barriers to impactful social dialogue in the global garment industry;
  • Identify and evaluate through research root causes and possible interventions that can help overcome those barriers;
  • Work with partner organisations to test some of these interventions, with an eye on developing strategies that can be more widely applied.
Figure 1 Target countries: Social Dialogue in the 21st Century focuses on ten sourcing countries: Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Ethiopia, India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mexico, Honduras, and Vietnam.

Three main results are expected of  the project based on the consultations, research, pilots and other findings:

  • Project and initiative selection guidelines for workers and trade unions interested in social dialogue initiatives as well as training on how to partner with academics to test and analyse the results of these new strategies.
  • Meaningful guidance to industry – especially brands – based on research and legal analysis on what their role should be in social dialogue in supply chains and how they can contribute to removing roadblocks to an enabling environment for social dialogue.
  • Advocacy for social dialogue as a policy priority for governments and industry, at national and international levels, with clear policy guidance on the role governments and other stakeholders can play in supporting Social Dialogue.

The first report from the project resulted from a number of meetings with stakeholders, focusing on what they felt the most important barriers to impactful social dialogue are. The report, which can be found here, provided new insights into the challenges of each stakeholder group and helped focus the project’s research questions. Based on these findings, intense research is being conducted in each of the ten focus countries. Country reports and conclusions will be available in December 2019.


To get involved in the project or learn more, please contact Tina Rogers, Social Dialogue Coordinator at [email protected]