Op-ed

Acting together to build a positive culture of safety and health

‘Social dialogue’ has been key to tackling the occupational safety and health challenges of COVID-19 across Asia and the Pacific. Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa, Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for the International Labour Organization for Asia and the Pacific explains why.

Comment | Bangkok, Thailand | 28 April 2022
When it comes to workplace safety and health ‘social dialogue’ matters.

In ILO parlance, social dialogue refers to all types of negotiation and consultation, or simply the exchange of information between representatives of governments, employers, and workers. It can be informal or highly institutionalized. It can take place at levels ranging from the international arena to the smallest family-run workplace. It can also encompass anything from an economic sector to an individual company.

The important thing is that it happens.

Social dialogue has many benefits. High amongst these is how it contributes to the creation of a strong positive safety and health culture within workplaces where workers feel comfortable raising concerns about possible safety and health risks, and management is proactive about collaborating with them to find solutions.

This process requires open communication and dialogue built on trust and mutual respect. It’s hugely important, as according to The Lloyd's Register Foundation World Risk Poll, the probability that workers might suffer a serious injury at work is strongly correlated to their opinion that they cannot freely report safety issues to their employers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic the advantages of social dialogue have been very clear.

Throughout the crisis, governments which prioritized the active participation of employers’ and workers’ organizations have collectively developed COVID-related emergency laws, policies and interventions.

Social dialogue has been instrumental in reaching agreements on how best to protect workers from the pandemic. Standard Operating Procedures and protocols have been negotiated and implemented across companies, sectors and economies. These introduce prevention measures such as physical distancing, adjusted shifts and telework for those who can take advantage of it. They also include the cleaning and disinfecting of workplaces and provision of personal protective equipment for workers.

Social dialogue helped workers and businesses find solutions that benefit everyone. Importantly, it has built ownership and commitment, paving the way for rapid and more effective implementation of actions at every level.

While social dialogue has helped many in the region ride out the worst of the pandemic it has also highlighted the benefits of engagement with a broad range of partners. During the crisis, close and regular collaboration with representatives of public health authorities and other health professionals, such as researchers and epidemiologists helped guide decisions related to the world of work. The decisions taken have kept workers healthy, businesses functioning and help guide a safe return to work. They highlight the importance of keeping the doors open to information, advice and expertise. It is important that this spirit of engagement continues beyond the pandemic response.

As we are all very much aware, the pandemic forced us to embrace new working conditions. Arrangements such as teleworking have become a ‘new normal’ likely to outlast the immediate COVID response. While teleworking can help improve work-life balance, without proper planning, organization and health and safety support its impact on the physical and mental health and social wellbeing of workers can be significant.

Through social dialogue, lessons can be learned from the pandemic teleworking experiment and used to revise existing laws, regulations, and policies, or to develop new ones. These can help make teleworking a “win-win” arrangement benefitting workers and employers alike.

At the same time, we must not forget the 1.3 billion informal economy workers in the Asia and the Pacific region. Through the nature of their work, they are usually excluded from OSH regulations or programmes and their voices rarely heard. The need for more and better participation of informal economy employers and workers in social dialogue about how to overcome the profound challenges they face – including workplace safety – is vital.

Capacity building of informal workers on OSH including COVID prevention is also essential. Asia-Pacific is relatively advanced in this regard with various initiatives carried out by ILO and various partners across the region. These too require participation and social dialogue at its most basic level to ensure cooperation between workers and employers and ultimately to help ensure safe and healthy workplaces.

The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the importance of social dialogue, showing in the most pragmatic terms how it can contribute to the adoption of sustainable and appropriate solutions as well as driving a stronger commitment to the decisions taken.

We must carry this lesson with us beyond the pandemic to help face future crises that might lie ahead as well as to ensure the safety of each and every worker.