A commentator writing on recent protests observed that they had been initially driven not by any particular ideology but rather by “the most human of emotions – the quest for dignity and justice.”
More than 90 years ago this was the message of the ILO’s founding principles: labour is not a commodity and lasting peace must be founded on justice. Today we must commit to a new era of social justice.
The motifs of injustice and indignity are woven into the protests on streets, squares, blogs and tweets, and in less public expressions. The root causes may differ. But there is a widespread feeling that too many people, economies and societies have been on a rigged course leaving them on the losing end.
In an increasingly inefficient globalization where two key drivers, deregulation of finance and global trade liberalization are in crisis, the world of work has been a conduit of injustice in many ways.
A starting point is the numbers, for example one out of three workers in the world – some 1.1 billion are either unemployed or living below the US$2 a day poverty line; 75 million youths unemployed and nearly three times as likely as adults to be unemployed; half of total employment is some form of vulnerable employment where women are worse affected.
But it goes beyond this. Take for example the fate of the many who work hard in unsafe and often inhuman conditions or the fact that more than half the world’s population lacks any type of social security protection. And the widespread absence of the fundamental freedoms of work which produce child labour, forced labour, discrimination and the absence of effective voice and representation.
The polarization that has marked the present model of growth is a societal and global concern:
- The World Economic Forum 2012 Global Risks report rates severe income inequality and high unemployment, especially among youth, as the most likely global risk in the next 10 years;
- The Pew Research Center recently found that in the US the perception that strong and growing conflicts exist between the economic classes is broadly held: 64 per cent of adults with family incomes of less than $20,000 per year report serious conflicts between the rich and the poor while 67 per cent of those earning $75,000 a year or more also share this view;
- The head of Deutsche Bank and of the Institute of International Finance has warned of a “social time bomb” from wealth and income inequality; and
- Gallup World Poll 2011 basic data show that between 2006 and 2010, out of 118 countries, 58 per cent showed a larger fraction of people reporting a worsening of living standards and in 99 countries with available data, 50 per cent reported lower confidence in government.
There is much to give cause for concern on this World Day of Social Justice. The historical moment requires new thinking and creativity to produce economic progress with social justice. The world of work must loom large in the responses.
The point of departure will be critical in defining the outcome.
First, the policies that drive globalization must converge on addressing the 600 million jobs challenge - 200 million unemployed plus 400 million labour force entrants over the next ten years.
Secondly, reducing inequality and revaluing work. Deepening inequality has been accompanied by the devaluation of work with destabilizing consequences for human dignity, family stability and peace in our communities - as well as for global purchasing power.
Thirdly, responding to the surge and implications of global popular movements demanding increased voice and participation, our systems of dialogue, collaboration and consensus building will need to be radically reinforced and improved in the world of work as well as in social and political life.
Finally, ensuring that the financial sector is at the service of the real economy, no longer accepting that some banks are too big to fail and some people are too small to matter. This is essential to unlock the job creating potential of productive investments in sustainable enterprises.
Such a perspective will lead to policy mixes and strategies appropriate to each national context to secure the expansion of opportunities for decent and productive employment in a sustainable framework. At all levels of development the focus must be on quality work that gives dignity in the present and hope for the future; serving the interests of people, enterprises, the economy and the environment, with a balanced approach to the roles of government, business, labour and civil society.
For the ILO, born in Europe out of the hardship and struggles of working people, it is particularly painful on this World Day of Social Justice to see this region in such a difficult place, struggling with fiscal debt by building a huge social justice debt. For those of us who have so long admired Europe for its determination to lay down a democratic and balanced path towards peace, fairness and development with a strong middle class, it is deeply disturbing to witness the fact that in many places the workers and families who have no responsibility for the crisis are paying the highest personal cost.
We certainly hope that they can reconnect with the fundamental human values on which the European ideal was founded and expanded after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The world has choices. We can continue to apply policies which produced the crisis and wait for at least 88 years to eradicate extreme poverty at the present rate. Or we can begin to conceive and realize a vision of society and of growth based on the dignity of human beings capable of delivering economic efficiency, sustainability and decent work for all in a new era of social justice.