ON THE LEFT: Need to include other ‘partners’
Social partnership has emerged as a means for countries to cope with harsh economic circumstances. However, its success lies, not just in concluding the partnership, but in sustaining it as well.
Barbados serves as a model for social partnerships within the Caribbean. Facing one of its worst eras of economic turmoil in the early 1990s – partly triggered by an economic crisis due to the global recession, as well as the structural adjustment policies tied to the economic relief provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – Barbados sought to address its resulting vulnerabilities by uniting its employers and workers, who later collaborated with the Government to form what would become a social partnership.
Barbados boasts a long tradition of voluntary negotiations held on an ad hoc basis among the Government, workers, and employers – although before the implementation of the social partnership, most negotiations took place at the company level.
In general, the Barbadian experience with social partnerships has been hailed as a great success.
An important step still remains, however, in fully institutionalising the social partnership in Barbados. While the social partners fourth protocol included an agreement to move towards the establishment of a secretariat – which would provide staff exclusively dedicated to research and briefing the partners, thus enabling a quicker responsiveness from the social partnership to economic events – one is yet to be formally established.
Another important problem faced by the social partners in Barbados is the difficulty in transferring the decisions made at the national level into practice at the company level.
Although the share of workers belonging to unions in Barbados is relatively high, at 36 per cent, and a large fraction of non-unionized workers still benefit from the social partnership through negotiations at the workplace level, it is estimated that roughly 26 per cent of workers, usually employed in small businesses, lie outside the unions’ sphere of influence.
Although the island’s tradition of voluntary agreements assumes that deals settled at the national level will be voluntarily accepted at the company level – even by those not directly involved or represented in the dialogue – the partnership has nonetheless been confronted with issues of non-compliance with the agreement, often because of lack of awareness or difficulties encountered by companies in adapting the decisions to their specific conditions.
The Barbadian social partnership’s limitation to the Government, workers, and employers, to the exclusion of NGOs and the media was criticised. It was found that in African countries emerging from conflict for example, partnerships that included civil society along with the government and the private sector were critical in re-establishing political stability and rebuilding economic infrastructure, since civil society organisations inter alia mediated disputes, encouraged long-term dialogue, and attracted funding from external donors.
The participation of the media in social dialogues would also have led to better education of the Barbadian society regarding the agreements reached by the social partners.
In the future, this could address the need for stronger transfers between the policies issued at the national level and decisions taken at the company and industry level.