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What Is Tripartite Dialogue and How Can It Help Combat the Climate Crisis in a Just Way?

By Laura Hohenberger on March 1, 2022

As the world continues to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, the next crisis is knocking at our door, now louder than ever: we need to quickly transform our economy into a sustainable system to avoid further detrimental effects of the climate crisis. A vital part of this is transitioning to low-carbon energy production. However, this raises the question of what will happen to workers and communities affected by the move away from fossil fuels.

When crafting the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change, world leaders agreed in 2015 that this energy transition needs to be a just one, meaning it should be fair and inclusive while creating quality jobs. What does that mean in practice?

Just Transition: Key definitions

The term “just transition” originates from the labour movement and embodies the idea that the goals of environmental sustainability and decent work are not mutually exclusive—instead, they can and should be pursued together.

The seminal document on the issue is the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Guidelines for a Just Transition, which outline what a just transition is and how it should happen. In short, these guiding principles are:

a)    Social dialogue
b)    Workers’ rights
c)    Gender equality 
d)    Enabling policy environment for sustainability and inclusivity 
e)    Decent jobs, social protection, and bargaining rights
f)    No one-size-fits-all solution, with approaches varying by country
g)    International cooperation

To find the best measures to put these principles into action, the ILO recommends social dialogue and, in particular, tripartite dialogue. In the context of just transition, sometimes the word “stakeholder dialogue” is also used, which can lead to confusion. What is the difference between these three forms of dialogue, and why does it matter in practice?

Which Dialogue Now?

Of these terms, stakeholder dialogue is the broadest in scope. Stakeholders are any groups or individuals involved in or affected by a policy. Thus, in a just transition context, stakeholder dialogue refers to the negotiation or exchange of ideas between any parties that have an interest in the matter. These parties could be governments, workers, and employers, but also citizens and representatives from non-governmental organizations, to give a few examples. 

While the ILO guidelines mention stakeholder engagement, their main focus lies on social and tripartite dialogue in particular. Here it gets a little tricky: the ILO’s definitions of both terms are similar, but the term social dialogue encompasses more possible combinations of actors. It refers to policy discussions that can involve governments, workers, and employers. However, discussions between workers’ and employers’ representatives without the presence of a government entity are also considered social dialogue. 

In contrast, tripartite dialogue specifically refers to discussions between three parties: governments, workers’ organizations, and employers’ organizations. Thus, the terms social dialogue, tripartite dialogue, and stakeholder dialogue are not interchangeable, and which type of dialogue is chosen will depend on the situation at hand.

Why Is Tripartite Dialogue Important?

The ILO places special emphasis on the principle of tripartite dialogue, as governments, workers, and employers are most directly involved in and affected by labour policies. In fact, the ILO itself is based on the principle of tripartism. 

The ILO is made up not only of government representatives but also workers’ and employers’ organizations from its member states. This tripartism has been the foundation of the ILO since its creation in 1919. Tripartite dialogue also has a long history of supporting just transitions at a country level. While there are no perfect examples of tripartite dialogue for just transitions, there are experiences we can learn from that show this dialogue’s potential for a positive impact on public policy.

In Germany, tripartite negotiations have been fundamental to softening the impact of declining coal production since the 1960s. Traditionally, German workers and employers have a large influence on policy. The advisory boards of the public German social security insurances, for example, are made up of representatives from government, workers, and employers. While there is no formalized institution for tripartite dialogue, it is common practice to involve all three parties in policy changes.

South Africa is also known for its just transition efforts involving tripartite dialogue. The Council of South African Trade Unions has had a large influence on policy-making in recent years, achieving the implementation of laws that tackle poverty and marginalization. From 2017 to 2019, the National Planning Commission held dialogues with workers’ and employers’ representatives as well as with other relevant stakeholders. This led to more social policies and just transition measures being incorporated in the government's planning. 

In New Zealand, one important platform shaping just transition is the Future of Work Tripartite Forum, where the government, the national council of trade unions, and the largest business-advocacy group of the country discuss risks and opportunities of changing workplaces due to challenges like climate change. The forum recently agreed on a government aid program that provides 80% of the former salary for 7 months to laid-off workers or those made redundant. 

These examples show how tripartite dialogue can help to bring about just transitions and illustrate different ways it can be put into practice. While stakeholder, social, and tripartite dialogue are all important, to plan an effective just transition, it’s crucial to understand how these processes differ, and why discussion between governments, workers, and employers is especially important.