Tripartism is economic corporatism based on tripartite contracts between employers' organizations, trade unions, and the government of a country. Each is to act as a social partner to create economic policy through cooperation, consultation, negotiation, and compromise. Tripartism is a common form of and favored by neo-corporatism.
Tripartism became a popular form of economic policy during the economic crisis of the 1930s. Tripartism was supported by a number of different political perspectives at this time: one was Catholic social teaching; fascism supported this for fascist unions but repressed communist and social democratic unions; and in democratic politics. Tripartism is a prominent economic policy in Europe, particularly where Christian Democratic parties influenced by Catholic social teaching have held power; it is a core part of the economic systems in Scandinavia and the Benelux that were put in place by social democratic governments. An example is the national income policy agreement in Finland. Tripartite agreements are an important component in practical labour law, since they cover not only wages, but also issues such as policies on benefits, vacation, workhours and worker safety.
International Labour Organization
The International Labour Organization is the only United Nations agency that is based on tripartism. It uses the discussions between the three groups in drafting of standards and conventions. Also for the implementation of ILO-standards in national law tripartite consultations on a national level are a requirement for those countries party to the Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976.
The history of tripartism in the ILO
Some countries have already used a tripartite structure to deal with social issues at the end of 19th century. And World War I made this type of approach far more urgent. In this new kind of conflict, military success was tightly bound up with the ability of nations to support increasing demands on their economies and to build ever more sophisticated weapons, which demanded concerted industrial efforts. Business and labour had to become involved in policy and cooperate to support the national effort.
During the war, Allied countries had made many promises to trade unions and employers so that they could rely on business' contribution to the war effort. Trade union and employers were invited to sit on governmental bodies in Great Britain, the United States and elsewhere. Moreover, unions were asked to forego acquired trade union rights for the sake of the war effort with promises that these rights would be restored after the conflict.
The first draft of the labour proposals for the peace conference had been prepared by British Government and became the basis for the discussions in the Labour Commission, and these proposals included the establishment of an international organization for labour legislation that would give a voting role to representatives of workers and employers.
To sum up, ILO offered the world a different way to solve social strife. It provided it with the procedures and techniques of bargaining and negotiation to replace violent conflict as a means of securing more humane and dignified conditions of work. While there have been problems along the way, tripartism has generally survived without successful challenge to the principle, despite attempts by the Soviet Union, in particular, to weaken it. As World War II would to a close, the value of tripartism was reaffirmed in the Declaration of Philadelphia.
Tripartism in practice
The implications of tripartism in the ILO are manifold. To put it simply, the participation in the ILO deliberations of delegates directly representing the interest of workers and employers adds a connection with economic reality that cannot be reproduced in an organization where governments are the only spokespersons. The roles played by representatives of workers and employers differ markedly. For workers, the ILO is a major instrument to pursue their goals, and they have a much more active agenda than employers. On the other hand, employers frequently play the role of the “brake” on initiatives put forward both by the workers and the Office and its Director-General, to slow action they consider hasty, or which would work against the perceived interest of business.
The ILO is valuable for both workers and employers because of the voice and influence that it offers them. One author aptly characterizes the importance of tripartism, when discussing the ILO’s remarkable survival through World War II, as having been both a straitjacket and a lifejacket. As the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association put it, "the right conferred upon workers' and employers' organizations must be based on respect for those civil liberties which have been enunciated in particular in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the absence of these civil liberties removes all meaning from the concept of trade union rights. Ever if tripartism makes the ILO far more representative of civil society than any other intergovernmental organization, employers' and workers' organization, employers’ and workers’ organizations necessarily represent the formal economy rather than the huge –and growing-informal economy, especially in developing nations. In addition, with membership of trade unions shrinking in many industrialized states, the representativeness of these organizations even in the formal sector is often questioned. The challenge for the ILO and its constituents is to adapt the tripartite model to a globalizing world, where there are new actors operating outside national frameworks and increasingly diverse forms of voice and representation. Some measures of accommodation have been found, for instance involving cooperation with NGOs in action against child labour, and dialogue with parliamentarians and other important actors. The broader challenge remains.
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