On Transformative Social Protection

​After the financial crisis in 2008,  ​several Asian and European social movements ​​have actively promoted social protection systems that cover the demands for decent work and livelihood, quality social services, and social security for all - towards fulfilling the right to a life of dignity, empowering people and transforming societies. These movements are campaigning for nation-wide and globally-funded social protection systems that are universal, rights-based, comprehensive, legislated, and state-underwritten with mechanisms for public control.

 All over the world, people today are facing a crisis of survival marked by worsening   inequality and polarization. For about 35 years,  corporate interests  have forced  through neoliberal policies that enrich small elites, eroded protective regulations, crushed workers’ rights, cut social spending, and enforced large-scale privatization of public utilities and services.  Asia, hailed as the new engine of global capitalism, is also home to two-thirds of the world’s poor: 900 million people struggling in extreme poverty. Joblessness is pervasive. The majority of Asian workers hold precarious work in hostile conditions.

 While most countries in the Asian region have social protection programmes, these are limited to targeted safety nets for the extreme poor such as the conditional cash transfers.  Further, while social protection has become a major agenda item of states as well as international agencies and viewed as a tool for poverty reduction, proposals in these bodies have also called for the privatisation of welfare services and markets in health, education, water, power and​pensions. What is also significant is the aggressive trend of moving social security funds towards financing public infrastructures that have been​ ​restructured into "public private partnerships".  These arrangements guarantee monopolistic profits for private corporations with many of the risks borne by the state and ultimately the public.

 Europe, too, is in the midst of the deepest crisis since World War II. People are faced with joblessness and insecurity, and an estimated 120 million people live below the poverty line. Governments respond with “austerity” policies that slash wages and jobs, weaken trade unions, cut social services and dismantle public utilities. These policies target institutionalised welfare programmes that have served as models of development.

 Against this backdrop, the social movements assert the following:

That social protection should be universal for all citizens, even for migrant workers and refugees. In the current situation, the UN says that only 20% of people (1% in developing countries and 19% in affluent countries) enjoy social protection.

That social protection be rights-based. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights provide that people (simply as people) have the following inalienable rights: the right to work, the right to food, the right to social services, and the right to social security. These rights should be granted in a comprehensive and not piecemeal way.

That democratic states play a critical role in underwriting social protection systems: designing, financing, administering and regulating social protection institutions. They emphasise the importance of state intervention in establishing mechanisms for public participation and control

That there is a strategic importance of legislation, if possible with constitutional underpinnings, to ensure that the fulfilment of these rights is institutionalised and sustained, and is insulated from market forces and political patronage. 

That social protection is affordable and feasible. Funds can be generated through just and progressive tax systems, the closure of tax havens, the imposition of a financial transaction tax, the cancellation of illegitimate government debts, and the promotion of public banking in order to support social priorities. The ILO through its costing studies in Asia reveals that the Social Protection Floor Initiative is within reach even of developing countries.

That the same dominant neoliberal economic system affects both Asians and Europeans, even as its policies manifest differently due to the different levels of development in these two continents.

 At present, Asian social movements demand, among others, these basic social protection entitlements that are already being enjoyed in Europe but are being systematically eroded:

·         Right to decent work and sustainable livelihood: living wages, guaranteed work, end to contractualisation, access to land and natural resources, subsidies to small farmers (The best form of social protection is the guarantee of decent work and livelihoods. With half of the world’s population still engaged in agriculture, land should be a common resource, accessible to all tillers);

·         Right to safe and affordable food (produced from ecological and sustainable agriculture of small farmers);

·         Right to social services: universal and quality health care, education, humane and low-cost housing, living requirements for water and energy;

·         Right to social security: living pensions for the elderly and disabled; child allowance; and income guarantee during unemployment, ill health, and natural disasters.

 The social movements also believe in social protection​systems that ​are transformative and beyond poverty reduction, which address the structural causes of inequality and power imbalances.  Therefore social protection is not an end in itself but a means towards social justice and democratic, societal transformation. These fundamentally important goals cannot be achieved without linking with other struggles, and with vigorous and wide-ranging actions, mobilising the masses and all democratic political institutions.​

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