Social Justice and Systemic Change (2)

Social protection and its allies

Social protection is high on the international agenda today. Even the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) have admitted it should be promoted. Global initiatives such as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and most of all the Social Protection Floors from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have to be welcomed and supported. Their achievement would mean a tremendous progress for people all over the world.

However, a more ambitious and long term horizon is also necessary, as the ILO itself is indicating. Not only because social protection can and should be more than a correction mechanism to the current austerity policies that continue to follow the neoliberal philosophy of structural adjustment, but also because protective policies imply so much more than cash transfers and basic social policies (see previous article).

In this article, I want to point to some of the necessary connections to make if we want social protection to be a major element of social justice and to contribute to systemic change and the shaping of a better world for all.

These connections can be seen at three levels. First, connections among the different elements of social security itself; second, connections with other elements of social policies, such as labour law and public services, third, connections with other sectors of public policies. Here, environmental policies are prominent, but research is also necessary on taxes, trade, macro-economics and obviously democracy and human rights.

Awareness of these interlinkages is crucial for developing comprehensive and coherent policies for public authorities as well as for social movements. It is clear that all departments and all movements will (have to) continue with a focused approach and build expertise in their own sector, but preserving a broader perspective on other policies. Coordination and cooperation will considerably help to achieve the objectives.

The importance of income

Looking at the different elements of the social protection floors, one striking element is that apart form the access to health care, all other elements concern basic income security: for sickness, unemployment, old-age, labour accidents, families and maternity, invalidity and survival. In other words, this is founded on the awareness that income is crucial for having a life in dignity, and for having access to health care indeed. The different benefits referred to in ILO’s 1952 Convention on the minimum standards for social security can be in kind or in cash but they also refer in fact to what has later been called ‘over the life cycle’, from childhood to pensioners with in between the risk of having an accident, of becoming ill, unemployed or disabled. Within families, which remain an important element of people’s way of organising life, individuals responding to different phases in this life cycle may live together. A guaranteed income for all of them will be crucial to preserve the welfare of the whole family. As for the access to health care, again, nothing in the text precludes private health services for which this income will indeed be crucial.

However much one may emphasize the ‘multidimensionality’ of poverty, in all market economies where people need money to buy health care, to send children to school, to take a bus, to buy food and clothing, poverty is foremost an income problem. Most other problems, including the psychological ones, will disappear once the individual or the family will have a guaranteed income giving access to all of the needed goods and services.

Whether it is health care, education or pensions, the need for universal services is crucial for reaching a decent level. And as the history of the past decades has amply demonstrated, privatised services most often are not satisfying. They are rarely universal, they are profit-oriented which means the fees are so high that poor people are excluded from them, working conditions are often below standard. Most importantly, once public authorities lose control over these services, they cannot be used anymore in order to orient policies in more social and environmentally friendly ways. Public health policies for instance, with a focus on preventive action, may be hindered by profit-seeking doctors or hospitals. Privatised pensions may be seriously curtailed by excessive commissions of insurance companies, thus rendering more difficult a healthy life for pensioners.

Social policies

It is crystal clear there are many links to make to other elements of social policies, outside of the strict social security approach. All these elements are crucial for the wellbeing of people and fit into a broader concept of social protection.

In the very first place stands labour right. This is directly connected to income and the importance of decent wages, but also to working conditions: labour contracts, now that precariousness is growing rapidly; representation, now that trade unions are world wide under attack; collective bargaining to strengthen workers’ power faced with employers who make them into social variables; security measures to avoid labour accidents, working time, etc. People working too long hours in badly maintained buildings may endanger their lives and even die when their factory collapses, as happened in Rana Plaza, or when they have an accident with the bus they are driving. If they have no labour contract or if it is not drafted in due form, workers might suffer financial damage if there is an accident. This means that building standards and technical car inspections can contribute to social justice.

A second element which also is part of social protection is the broad sector of public services. This goes from health care, which falls already under social security, to education, water, electricity, public transport, telecommunication, etc. These services do not necessarily have to be provided for free, but they should be elements in the strategic objectives of governments to promote the wellbeing and welfare of people. They should not be profit oriented. Education programmes can imply information on citizenship and responsibility but also on health and safety; water and electricity policies can imply environmental concerns; public transport and housing can and should be coordinated with urban development policies; gender equality can be considered as a transversal issue to be taken into account in all social policies.

Social justice requires that all elements are taken into account and are subject to regular coherence assessments.

Climate justice and systemic change

Once we start looking for connections outside the typical social sector, it is clear one first of all meets the whole environmental sector. Climate justice is social justice indeed. However, this does not only mean that all policy measures taken in the environmental sector should take into account equity considerations. It also means that social policies can be designed in such a way that they favour a clean and healthy environment.

As was mentioned already, public transport and housing can have important positive consequences for the environment (or not): poor people can be helped, e.g., with insulation of their house or apartment, so that they have to spend less on energy and that less consumption will be needed; a good public transport system or high parking fees may help to discourage people to use their private car; wages and pensions can and should be high enough to avoid that people have to resort to polluting practices, products and services; the provision of water and electricity may be coupled to price policies that foster economical consumption and do not harm the environment. Climate and social justice can simply not be delinked.

There are other policies that should be carefully looked at if we want to promote social justice. Tax policies are crucial for introducing good social protection policies. Even if in the countries with welfare states, where much of the social policies are funded through contributions of workers and employers, solid fiscal policies will be needed for sufficient revenues. This is particularly true when the robotization of the economy may cause a lot of unemployment in the short term and where insurance mechanisms may come under stress. Tax rates in many countries of the world are very low and show ample potential to be raised. Even more important are measures to avoid tax evasion and fraud as well as the illicit capital flows from South to North. It is in this same context that the whole debt problem should be tackled since it puts undue fiscal limits on governments.

Migration is another problematic area. Too often it is being said, in countries of Western Europe, that too strong immigration flows can threaten the existing welfare systems. This is grossly exaggerated since social assistance to refugees and asylum seekers only cost a minor percentage of government’s social expenditures and working migrants in the formal sector contribute to the solidarity mechanisms. It is a fact however that social policies should be examined in the context of growing migration, first of all to guarantee the rights of all people arriving in a country and regulate, possibly, the transferability of their rights, and secondly in order to avoid the disruption of labour markets. Social dumping already is a reality in some economic sectors, and an intelligent migration policy can do a lot to avoid the growth of precariousness and informal labour.

A better trade policy is crucial for improving the welfare of people in all countries. Free trade agreements now all too often hurt the interests of producers who cannot prepare themselves for change. Trade agreements are not to be condemned as such, and ‘de-globalisation’ is not the way to go. But from a social and environmental point of view the now famous ISDS-clauses (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) for dispute resolutions with corporations cannot be accepted. They can make it impossible to improve the working and living conditions of people and to protect the environment. They are a typical example of how international agreements can seriously hinder the development of coherent social and environmental policies. Moreover, in the food sector, for social and environmental reasons, priority should be given to local production and consumption.

In general, macro-economic policies deserve a profound  re-examination to make an end to austerity and extractivism. People and nature should be respected in order to survive. This is a question of sustainability. Sustainability at the human level: take the example of Greece where many old people lost up to half of their pension, or where many lost their businesses. Suicide rates have gone up dramatically. Sustainability at the environmental level: mining activities, all over the world, can threaten the livelihoods of local people by polluting their water and their land, or even by making access to them impossible.

Finally, one of the most important points concerns democracy and human rights. Social policies cannot be imposed in a top-down way if we want them to be effective. They have to respond to the real needs of people at the time and in the places where they live and work. This means that while necessarily being universal at the level of rights, they will have to take into account the differences and the diversity of people and societies. Social justice is basically a matter of human rights which cannot be respected without directly involving the people they are meant for to different policies affecting their daily lives. The assassination of social leaders and the criminalisation of social work in general should be strongly condemned.

Social justice

Social justice, then, is about much more than decent incomes and health care. It is about living in dignity, with gender equality, public services, good working conditions and a healthy environment, based on just tax policies, within an equitable trade environment, with democracy and participation. All these different policies can mutually strengthen each other.

What a careful examination of all these connections reveals is the need to work at comprehensive and coherent policies in order to avoid contradictions and in order to foster positive synergies, and to regularly assess these policies. What it can lead to is a road to social justice, beyond poverty reduction and beyond basic social protection. This is the ambition we should have for the long term.

These connections also reveal that social policies can and should be transformative, meaning they contribute to economic, social and political change. Economic change, because our current policies produce inequality and poverty and destroy the environment. Social change because all people have individual and collective human rights that should be respected and fulfilled in all circumstances. Political change because in order to achieve social justice we need full democracy, with the participation of all.

These changes will have to be put into place through parallel processes, not one has to wait for the other in order to get started. Even if poverty reduction policies can never lead to social justice, we should not reject them but do all what is possible to get beyond them and integrate them into a transformative project. We also know that climate justice will never be possible within the current economic system, we should welcome all ‘green’ system-friendly initiatives while working simultaneously against extractivist and toxic industries.


All elements – and many more – mentioned in this article should be the subject of an extensive research project, adequately taking into account different places, people and needs. And clearly, the possibility of putting into practice coherent policies very much depends on the power relations within society, governments and international organisations. Transformative policies can never become reality if people, worldwide, are not directly involved in their conceptualisation, or continue to develop in a fragmented way. Hence, the importance of considering all social justice elements as commons, as being in the interest and in the hands of all. A commons approach should be seen as a strategic tool for change.

Transformative social policies are, in the end, about much more than social policies. They are people-oriented and want to preserve the environment, but in order to do so they have to look at taxes, trade and macro-economics, amongst others. Their objective is social justice for all, a condition for sustainability and, in the end, for peace. Social protection is an ideal entry point to aim at social justice and beyond. In the same way, social protection floors are a good entry point to look at the enormous potential social policies have to contribute to a better world for all.



Francine Mestrum – Global Social Justice –