101st Session of the International Labour Conference: Statement by Ms. Helen KELLY, workers ' spokesperson for the Committee on the Social Protection Floor

Statement | Genève | 31 May 2012

Dear Chair, dear Delegates,

It is a pleasure to be here and see such a great interest in the work of our committee. I have already seen many familiar faces from last years discussion, but it is also great to have new colleagues in a room who bring a a fresh mind to our discussion.

Ambassador Feyder let me congratulate you on your election as the chair of our committee and we are looking forward to work with you again. I also want to congratulate Kris de Meester being elected as the employers spokesperson.

Chair, Geneva is celebrating the 300st birthday of Jean Jacques Rousseau this summer, whose writing inspired the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French revolution and Rousseau proposed the idea of an universally agreed ‘social contract’ of all citizens as the basis for a good society. A ‘social contract’ to guarantee liberty and equality for all and he was particularly concerned that no one should be forced through poverty to sell himself.

What better a way this anniversary than us, governments, employers and workers of the world, coming together to write a global ‘social contract’ ’: an international agreement to guarantee a social protection floor for all.

Comparing our humble work with the ideas of one of the greatest European philosophers might sound highly ambitious. But highly ambitious we should be. We should start with the common desire to send a bold and powerful message from this conference: No one in need will be left without the necessary support for a decent life.

This year’s Social Floor Recommendation should become a guiding instrument for member states to achieve basic universal social security coverage as quickly as possible.

We hope, brevity and clarity will be a trademark of this new Recommendation. Let us try not to get bogged down in fighting over one or two words or to water down the instrument with lots of caveats.

We all agree that international standards cannot be over-prescriptive. However, it is also true that this Recommendation can only add value if it firmly defines the principles, provide real policy guidance for member states, and creates a genuine commitment to achieve social protection for all in the foreseeable future.

We will adopt this recommendation at a historic moment for the ILO itself. This recommendation will be an important part of the legacy of Juan Somavia as Director General, and I would like to take the opportunity to thank him for his outstanding commitment to promote a social protection floor. The Recommendation will also be the first instrument that will shape the mandate of the new Director General and I would like to congratulate Mr. Guy Ryder to his election. We are looking forward to working with him and we are sure he will bring the same passion and conviction to this job as his predecessor. This Recommendation gives him a great opportunity to focus this organization on practical policies that can make a difference in the lives of billions of people. It will also provide the policy guidance to support the transition from informal and precarious employment towards decent work. Indeed, the adoption of this recommendation will reaffirm that tripartism in the 21st century is not only a process, but a way to develop and promote policies for dynamic, inclusive and fair societies.

The ILO has played a lead role in the debate about a social protection floor. Along with the WHO, it has been the driving force behind the UN social floor initiative. The G 20 Labour Ministers welcome the Conclusions on social protection adopted by the International Labour Conference.at their Paris meeting last year . Last year, Michelle Bachelet, chairperson of the Social Protection Floor Advisory Group, presented a powerful report on the value of a Social Protection Floor for a Fair and Inclusive Globalization. In her speech, she emphasized that “an international standard in the form of a Recommendation in 2012 opens an important avenue for taking forward the recommendations of the group’s report.” This Recommendation is not an isolated ILO matter, but is part of a broader policy debate on government policies in many countries to make decisive progress on social security coverage. We have been recognized as the organisation of substance and competence. This carries high expectations and we must deliver on those expectations.

Several studies and ILO reports of initiatives in various countries show that, where there is political will, rapid progress in a short period of time is possible. Substantial progress in diverse countries like China, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Namibia, India, Thailand, Ghana, Mongolia and many others provide the practical evidence that social security is a powerful tool to move people out of poverty. While we all acknowledge the importance of decent employment and decent pay for moving people out of poverty, there can also be no doubt that the battle against poverty cannot be won without solidarity and redistribution. But it is not only a question of poverty alleviation. Neither an open global economy nor global social peace have a future without improved global governance and much stronger policies to achieve greater equality and social justice nationally and globally.

A social protection floor will also be a major contribution in reducing gender inequality. The majority of people employed in low paid and precarious jobs, or active in the informal economy are women. They are often more vulnerable than men and will benefit more from a basic social floor. This is true for income transfers but even more for health care. Millions of children and mothers die because of lack of maternity protection and pre- and postnatal care. Therefore the inclusion of maternity protection in a social floor is of utmost importance.

The Questionnaire results were most encouraging with the vast majority of responses positive for all elements of the draft however, there were some concerns expressed includingthat a social protection floor might provide wrong incentives and not sufficiently focus on the importance of activating people. While activation might be an issue in some countries with mature social security policies, we should not forget that here we are talking about a basic social protection floor protecting people against outright poverty. We are talking about child benefits helping children to go to school instead of having to work, about a basic pension for old age people, access to health care, and some basic income protection for those in active age who are unable to earn sufficient income. Sick or undernourished people can’t be active. Currently, people in the informal economy are activated in the most brutal way, at risk of starving if they can’t find some source of income. This has to stop. People must be able to decline the most exploitive forms of employment. Activating can only mean providing people with options and opportunities. It cannot mean starving them into indecent employment. We do not want to see the concerns of activation overplayed in the context of this basic floor.

This year’s discussion on national floors for social protection is based on the understanding that social protection floors are an element of wider and more comprehensive social security systems. Therefore we should not mix discussions of the appropriate incentive structure in mature social security with the undeniable need of a basic social protection for everybody. Or to put it simply: if conditionalities, targeting, or means testing result in practice in excluding people in need from basic social protection, there will be something fundamentally wrong in the design of the system.

We strongly support the conceptual idea of integrating social policies in a wider set of labour market, educational, economic and financial policies. However, in particular during a deep crisis like we are facing today, sound macro economic policies must include income protection and a safeguards against downward pressure on wages to stabilize aggregate demand are and toavoid a race to the bottom and a vicious cycle of wage cuts, followed by price cuts, sinking tax revenues, and rising private and public debt burden.

While we think the instrument should express the need of a holistic approach, it should clearly focus on the question of the social floor itself.

We are in the fortunate situation that we are not starting our deliberation from scratch but can base this year’s discussions on existing international human right treaties, international labour standards, and on our conclusions from last year’s conference. I am sure that a commitment to the “Geneva consensus” of the 100th ILC will help us this year to adopt a powerful and robust Social Protection Floor Recommendation. Let me recall just some key elements we agreed on last year:

  • the recognition of social security as a human right
  • a strong commitment to the vertical and horizontal extension of social security to all,
  • the need for a universal social protection floor providing basic social protection as a stepping stone towards
  • the ultimate responsibility and the mandate of governments to ensure universal social security coverage,
  • the need to reduce informality and precariousness,
  • the importance of social security as an investment in people and development
  • the need for sound financing and fair burden sharing
  • the recognition of retirement as a legitimate part of the life cycle
  • the pivotal role of transparent governance, full accountability and efficient administration
  • the importance of substantive social dialogue
  • the need for defining at national level a time frame for progressive implementation of a social floor
  • the key role of social protection to ensure a just share of the fruits of progress for all.

The draft text before us reflects the comments of governments, employers and workers from last years questionnaire and can certainly serve as a very useful basis for our discussion. The speed with which the office produced the Law and Practice report after last year’s discussion has been impressive. Let me take this opportunity to thank the office for an outstanding example of efficiency and professionalism.

Comprehensive social security systems are powerful economic instruments that act immediately as automatic stabilizers. Social transfers, and in particular unemployment benefits have a key role to play to avoid a downward recessionary spiral. They are also well suited for large scale but well targeted public expenditure programs.

Given the importance of a healthy, educated and confident workforce for any lasting development, the fundamental question should not be whether we can afford social protection, but if we can afford not to have social protection. “Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.” This was true when the ILO was founded and it holds today.

Since the beginning of the great recession, governments around the world are struggling to deal with the biggest market failure we have seen since the great depression. The overconfidence in the self-regulating capacity of markets has brought societies to the brink of collapse. The simple truth is there is no invisible hand that will direct individual greed towards the common good. It is up to the people, to competent governments to build inclusive societies. Markets are great servants, but bad masters. Nothing has changed in that respect since the times of Jean Jacques Rousseau: it is the ‘general will’ of the people that has to determine the rules of the game. Rules of the game that ensure liberty equality and dignity.

On a global level, international labour standards contribute to this objective. They help to build the trust among nations that no one will try to gain an advantage through exploitive labour practices, and that no one will abuse labour standards for protectionist purposes. The Social Floor Recommendation offers a great opportunity to reduce poverty and to build the trust among nations that all nations subscribe to the universal principle and objective that basic social security must be guaranteed for everybody.

Chair, we have the great opportunity in the next two weeks to draft a Recommendation that defines the principles of a Social Protection Floors and provides guidance to countries when drafting their specific social protection floors according to their needs and possibilities. We look forward to the task and are sure that our joint deliberations and your stewardship will lead us to a successful outcome in two weeks time.