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Social Dialogue in the 21st Century Project

A collaborative project between the Cornell ILR School’s New Conversations Project and the Strategic Partnership for Garment Supply Chain Transformation (SP), which includes the Fair Wear Foundation, CNV Internationaal, and Mondiaal FNV.

In the past 30 years, globalization has sped up the flow of trade and capital, spread manufacturing and production across the globe, and created vast and complex supply chains, particularly in the garment and apparel industry. This process has outpaced the ability of governments, civil society, apparel brands, and the labor movement to improve working conditions and address labor rights violations in supply chains. Recent research indicates that corporate code-of-conduct audit programs have largely failed to provide significant and sustainable improvements in working conditions. Moreover, freedom of association and collective bargaining rights remain weak in sourcing countries.

The idea of social dialogue – promoting consensus building and democratic involvement among stakeholders – is an alternative that can potentially deliver better working conditions, social stability, and a level playing field that rewards good corporate citizens. However, the social dialogue systems and strategies developed in the 20th century were never designed to cope with the complexities of globalization. Freedom of association and collective bargaining rights remain fundamental but it is time to rethink how collective bargaining should function in a global economy, and who trade unions need to be negotiating with and at what level in order to deliver what workers need.

Social Dialogue in the 21st Century focuses on ten sourcing countries: Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Ethiopia, India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mexico, Honduras, and Vietnam (see figure 1). The project aims to create root-cause analysis of barriers to impactful social dialogue, and develop concrete recommendations for overcoming those barriers in the global garment industry.

World map showing the study's target countries: Mexico, Honduras, Bulgaria, Ethiopia, India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonessia, Bangladesh

Figure 1 Target Countries

The Project’s overall objectives are:

  1. Identify the major barriers to impactful social dialogue in the global garment industry;

  2. Identify and evaluating through research root causes and possible interventions that can help overcome those barriers;

  3. Work with partner organizations to test some of these interventions, with an eye to developing strategies that can be more widely applied.

Social Dialogue in the 21st Century is constructed as a five-phase project. It consists of:

  1. A listening phase, designed to focus the project’s research questions. See Listening Phase Summary here.

  2. A preparatory phase, which involves background research related to the project’s questions. See the executive summary of the synthesis report here.

  3. An intensive discussion phase, which convenes broader groups of stakeholders to tackle the research questions, informed by the research findings of the preparatory phase.

  4. A reporting and experimentation phase, to consolidate learnings, findings, recommendations and identify potential pilots or support for existing pilots

  5. A conference phase to publish reports and disseminate the outcomes.

Three main results are expected for the project, based on the consultations, research, pilots and other findings:

  1. Project and initiative selection guidelines for workers and trade unions interested in social dialogue initiatives as well as training on how to partner with academics to test and analyze the results of these new strategies.

  2. Meaningful guidance to industry - especially brands – based on research and legal analysis on what their role should be in social dialogue in supply chains and how they can contribute to removing roadblocks to an enabling environment for social dialogue.

  3. Advocacy for social dialogue as a policy priority for governments and industry, at national and international levels, with clear policy guidance on the role governments and other stakeholders can play in supporting Social Dialogue.

For more information about New Conversations, please contact J. Lowell Jackson, Project Associate, New Conversations Project at


The Social Dialogue in the 21st Century is ongoing but has already completed some key milestones.

The project's listening phase focused the project’s research questions and concluded in August 2019. See Listening Phase Summary here.

We completed the preparatory phase. The Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report is available here and the Ethiopia Social Dialogue report is available here. Supplemental research on the impacts of COVID-19 on social dialogue is currently being conducted and will be integrated into all country reports. These will be availalbe in Fall 2020.