There is nothing like a crisis to bring out the best and the worst in people and organisations. Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we have seen some good examples of altruism, pragmatic thinking, cooperation and solidarity among the social partners.
Some argue that social dialogue is a luxury when quick decisions are needed to mitigate the worst effects of a medical and economic emergency. However, despite some initial difficulties at the onset of the COVID crisis, local business, trade unions and the government managed to establish short-term working arrangements aimed at protecting income and jobs as well as safeguarding the health and safety of workers.
The critical success factors of this social dialogue were employers’ commitments to retain workers, unions’ agreement to reduce working time, and government support through benefits and wage subsidies.
Constructive social dialogue has shaped the policies that supported workers, saved businesses from collapsing and helped the economy keep ticking over, albeit in a subdued way.
One of the organisations that set an excellent example of how social dialogue should be practised was the Chamber of Commerce. By taking a broad, long-term view of what is good for business and the community, it helped shape the policies that were devised to deal with the worst effects of the pandemic.
The outgoing president, David Xuereb, promised the chamber would continue to play a leading role in representing businesses while facing the challenges ahead.
His successor, Marisa Xuereb, reiterated the same commitment to work in unison with other social partners to optimise the recovery plan for businesses.
She committed the chamber “to work relentlessly to enhance competitiveness and ensure a steady recovery and the implementation of a smart, sustainable economic vision for the country”.
At the international level, we experienced some disturbing incidents of bickering between politicians and finger-pointing when production problems affected the delivery of vaccines.
It is encouraging to note that there was more harmony at the local level in the management of the crisis.
As one would expect, some individuals and organisations voiced dissent over how aspects of the crisis have been managed. The public debate has largely been constructive though, even if the government has at times unjustly attacked the opposition’s criticism of its handling of the pandemic as being purely political in motive.
It is clear that the government has learned some lessons too, even if it only acknowledges them tacitly.
The COVID crisis has also helped societal leaders to acknowledge certain debilitating shortcomings in our health and economic systems. This has been a painful and sobering experience that will hopefully lead the social partners to build better systems for the future, after the pandemic is over.
The vulnerability of supply chains primarily based on squeezing wages, with razor-thin margins and no buffers to withstand shocks, has exposed the weaknesses in most businesses’ operating models.
While social dialogue and short-time working schemes acted as a circuit breaker against the prospect of a collapse in the economy, the crisis has cruelly emphasised the risks that vulnerable workers are constantly exposed to in today's labour market. The pandemic has uncovered and intensified the underlying inequalities in today's society.
Few can deny that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups who were already facing difficulties, such as low-skilled, informal workers, young people and women.
Soon it will be time to rebuild the social and economic infrastructure. Only social dialogue built on trust and fairness, on giving equal importance to the voices of both business and workers, can guarantee a better future for all.
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