November 27, 2023

Tripartism: Consensus and compromise in decision-making

A mechanism for social dialogue between workers, employers, and governments

Tripartism as a concept first gained ground in the early 20th century and is used by the International Labour Organization, a specialised agency of the United Nations.

As a governing structure, tripartism is where three social partner representatives with equal mana at the table, worker (union), employer, and government, meet freely to discuss and compromise to address issues of economic and social concern. Tripartism is used as a mechanism for economic planning and development. This includes discussion and coordination of investments, from government and business, and often involves a strong degree of labour and skills planning. Additionally, it is a means of trying to deliver industrial peace where employer and employee groups are brought to the table to agree on labour issues. 

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) provides an essential tripartite forum for global social dialogue to foster social and economic progress

Each year, the ILO holds its International Labour Conference where ILO policies are set by delegates representing the three social partners of the 187 member states. The tripartite nature of the ILO fosters the establishment of relationships and consensus among the global business and worker communities. This, in turn, enables the advancement of international policies to increase competitive and sustainable enterprises that contribute to economic and social development. It provides a forum for the international trade union movement to promote better global governance and universal international labour standards. 

The ILO, as an international tripartism body, is highly influential

Some of the ILO initiatives, such as their calls for decent work and living wages, may sound familiar to New Zealand’s policies on decent and good work and the living wage movement. Tripartism in New Zealand is a partnership between workers, represented by union bodies, usually led by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, employers, represented by Business NZ, and the Government. The goal is to form a consensus on issues that affect workplaces and the economy. 

Forming consensus in these environments usually involves compromise, but it is a structure that, ideally, should also ensure enduring change and initiatives that are able to withstand a change in government

The predominant example of tripartism in New Zealand is the Future of Work Tripartite Forum, where the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) acts as the Forum secretary. While there are other more specialised forums in New Zealand where tripartite conversations take place, the Future of Work Tripartite Forum is a good example of open social partner dialogue. It meets three to four times a year to discuss big topics and scope priority areas moving forward. It is also where the idea for the NZ Income Insurance Scheme was born. However, even though New Zealand is a nation where elections are generally won and lost at the centre, it is not yet certain whether this consensus-building Forum, and particularly the various outcomes from it, will be able to withstand a change in government. 

Just as the three social partners in New Zealand engage and collaborate freely and openly at the Forum, the same three social partners attend the ILO annual conference. BusinessNZ and the NZCTU also represent New Zealand employers and workers as members of the ILO Governing Body, which meets three times a year in Geneva to make decisions on ILO policy and decide the agenda of the International Labour Conference.

Because the concept of tripartism was designed outside New Zealand for the ILO, which represents the interests of myriad member states from across developing and developed economies, it does not leave much room for recognising the unique characteristics of our cultural, demographic, and political structures. For tripartism in New Zealand to be able to look to the future and design economic settings that can withstand a change in government, it needs to widen its social dialogue function to recognise and incorporate our unique characteristics, such as the principles of participation, protection, and partnership as set out in Te Tiriti. 

It is important when utilising international concepts and engaging with international bodies that we endeavour to adapt them to the New Zealand context, as nothing so broad in its global mandate can be one-size-fits-all

Te Tiriti can be incorporated, in practice, through this platform of open social dialogue. A collaborative approach that respects the diverse perspectives of business, Māori, unions, and the government will be crucial.