Key note address at the 49th Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) Biennial Delegates Conference 2022

By Matin Karimli, Director ILO Office for the Pacific Island Countries at the 49th Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) Biennial Delegates Conference 2022

Statement | Suva Fiji | 14 May 2022
Delegates at the conference, Nadi, Fiji.
Talking Points for the 49th Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) Biennial Delegates Conference.

Good morning, dear sisters and brothers, colleagues, and friends,

It is a high honour, and a great pleasure to be the Chief Guest at this opening session of the 49th FTUC Biennial Delegates Conference and represent the ILO office here. The theme of your conference is “The Role of Trade Unions in Fiji, 2022 and Beyond.” This is a challenging theme, and vast in its implications and potential reach. As we all know, predicting the future is a difficult and risky business. And no one us has a crystal ball. There is famous saying that “Never make predictions, especially about the future”. So, you won’t be surprised to know that I am not going to attempt to forecast the future for you.

What I do want to do is share with you some of the ILO’s insights on the continuing importance of trade unions and collective bargaining. Just last week the ILO published its first Flagship Report on Social Dialogue. The title of the report is “Collective bargaining for an inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery.” A large team of ILO researchers and consultants studied the role of trade unions – and also employer organisations – and the role of collective bargaining. The report presents important insights into how collective bargaining was able to help countries around the world to respond to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Based on this evidence, the report also has important policy recommendations for member States across the world.

So what is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process of voluntary negotiation between one or more employers (or their organizations) and one or more trade unions. I emphasize the word voluntary because it is essential to a proper understanding of why collective bargaining between properly authorised representatives of employers and workers can be so important at the workplace, and in broader society as well. I will return to this point shortly.

Collective bargaining is at the heart of social dialogue.

The right to collective bargaining is a fundamental human right, and one of the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work. There can be no collective bargaining – no voluntary collective bargaining – without a strong and vibrant trade union movement. And without equally well supported counterparts among employers. But the government also has an essential role to play. It is only government that can adopt or modify laws and other elements of the regulatory framework for collective bargaining. And the regulatory framework for collective bargaining plays a critical role in determining how effective it can be, and how widely its benefits can reach. The evidence shows that collective bargaining makes an important contribution to the inclusive and effective governance of work.

In particular, collective bargaining: 
  • Is flexible. It allows the parties to negotiate – and to renegotiate when a major change happens, such as the pandemic.
  • Facilitates inclusive labour protection. It can help to bring more workers into the protective scope of collective agreements. And it can reach new and different working conditions.
  • Can support enterprise sustainability by reallocating costs as between firms and the state.
  • Can support the effective application of public regulatory frameworks. To give a simple example: where collective bargaining and social dialogue based on trust are present, problems can be solved by dialogue, rather than by government action.
As I noted a moment ago, the role of government must not be overlooked. There are many reasons why a government should pay close attention to whether the legal and regulatory framework for collective bargaining is fit for purpose at any time. There are several categories of workers that some countries have brought into their regulatory frameworks in recent years. These include:
  • Public sector workers
  • Workers who experience particular difficulty in engaging in collective bargaining, including in particular domestic workers, migrant workers and workers in the informal economy.
  • Workers in new and emerging forms of employment arrangements.
A number of other key things can be done in the regulatory framework for collective bargaining. These include:
  • Giving legal effect to the principle that the most favourable provision should apply when more than one law and/or collective agreement applies.
  • Providing a means to extend the operation of collective agreements to sectors or regions of the country.
  • Making sure that when a collective agreement reaches the end of its original agreed time, there are provisions to ensure that the parties don’t just fall back to the statutory minimums.
In addition to these policy reasons to review the regulatory framework from time to time, I can also point to Article 4 of the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98). Article 4 provides as follows:
  • Measures appropriate to national conditions shall be taken, where necessary, to encourage and promote the full development and utilisation of machinery for voluntary negotiation between employers or employers' organisations and workers' organisations, with a view to the regulation of terms and conditions of employment by means of collective agreements.
The ILO’s flagship report shows the evidence of how collective bargaining enabled countries to cope with some of the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. A large part of that contribution came from the fact that collective bargaining is flexible. Provided it is voluntary and there is an institutional framework to support it, collective bargaining is a process whose direction and form and outcomes are determined entirely by the parties. Where they use that process reliably, it builds trust, and this facilitates compromise when external shocks arise.
More generally the ILO’s flagship report shows the benefits of collective bargaining as a policy implement in the broad context of economic and social policy. The benefits of collective bargaining include that:
  • It can advance equality by reducing wage inequalities and wage dispersion, and by bringing more workers into the protective coverage of collective agreements.
  • It can support and bolster efforts to promote better occupational health and safety outcomes.
  • It can help support economic and social transitions.
The report reaches some clear policy conclusions about the importance of collective bargaining in pursuing a an inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery. This will be much more possible if:
  • The right to collective bargaining is available to as many workers as possible, regardless of their status in employment.
  • Governments invest in peak-level tripartite social dialogue. In this respect, here in Fiji it would be encouraging to see more regular functioning of the tripartite Employment Relations Advisory Board.
  • Trade unions are revitalized and strengthened.
I will finish my remarks by expanding on this last point. What does it mean, in practical terms to revitalize and strengthen trade unions for the future; for 2022 and beyond? It means that trade unions must be able to:
  • Understand and analyse the changes going on in the world of work.
  • Influence economic, social and sustainable development polices.
  • Strengthen their institutional and organizational processes.
  • Develop the ability to engage in innovative strategies.
I observed at the outset that I cannot tell you the future of trade unions in Fiji in 2022, or beyond. But I can tell you that the future of trade unions will be that much more effective and influential if you are able to act on some of these important, global policy recommendations.
Trade unions in Fiji, individually and through the FTUC, can certainly play a vital role in pursuing a more equitable society and resilient economy. I hope that you will, and I wish you well in that endeavour.