Social Security in the Arab States

An elderly woman in the occupied Palestinian territory loads wheat into a machine for processing.
While the need for social protection is widely recognized, the fundamental human right to social security remains unfulfilled for a vast majority of the world’s population, including in the Arab States. There is a growing recognition that in order to foster broad-based and sustainable economic and social development the yields of economic growth need to be distributed in a more effective and equitable manner, and that more effective protection from poverty is indispensable. The promotion of social protection stands at the core of this recognition: interventions must be developed to contribute to the enhancement of income security, education and health outcomes, just as they have done in other countries around the world.

Across the Arab States, more efforts are required to ensure that social protection can continue to deliver as an indispensable mechanism of social solidarity, based on principles of universality in access and equity, with regard to both financing (taking into account contributory capacities) and benefits (according to needs). In this regard, the ILO works closely with its tripartite constituents to address challenges and support them to move towards rights-based inclusive social protection systems that can be driver for peace and prosperity in the region.

Social Protection in the Arab States

Although most countries in the region have in established social security programmes and institutions over the last decades, effective social security coverage remains elusive: most social insurance schemes cover only public and private sector workers with regular contracts, while other categories of workers are excluded from coverage, such as workers in the sizeable informal economy. Public sector workers generally enjoy more generous social insurance benefits than their private sector counterparts, which constitutes a threat to the financial sustainability of social security systems in several countries of the region, and represents a barrier to labour market mobility. Moreover, relatively high rates of informality, low female labour market participation and high levels of unemployment contribute to the effectively inadequate social insurance coverage rates, particularly for women.

Several countries have already implemented measures to adapt social protection systems to changing realities in the world of work, for example through the introduction of maternity and unemployment insurance benefits, as well as the extension of coverage to certain categories of self-employed workers. However, these measures have not gone far enough to ensure universal coverage and adequate benefit levels. Social security schemes tend to focus on the provision of pensions while other risks, such as unemployment, maternity, or sickness are either not covered, or only partly covered. The lack of adequate mechanisms to ensure financial protection to access healthcare for the most vulnerable citizens is also a significant concern in most of the Arab States. 

In addition, persistent political instability as well as the effects of internal displacement, conflict and the refugee crises, place significant strain on existing social assistance and social insurance systems, calling for renewed efforts to align humanitarian and development actors support to the establishment universal social protection systems. Migrant workers, representing a significant share of the workforce in the region, are generally excluded from appropriate forms of social insurance and social assistance.

Instead of comprehensive social protection systems, most Arab States offer subsidies on goods (notably for fuel and food). While subsidies have broad population coverage, they do not sufficiently benefit most vulnerable segments of the population and are considered to be largely cost-ineffective. As part of an effort to reform the subsidy system, several countries are in the process of revamping and extending cash-based social assistance systems. Yet such  cash transfer and safety net programmes tend not to be rights-based, are limited in scope, coverage and benefits.

ILO response in the Arab States

The ILO actively promotes policies and provides assistance to countries to help extend adequate levels of social protection to all members of society. Social security involves access to health care and income security, particularly in cases of old age, unemployment, sickness, invalidity, work injury, maternity or loss of a main income earner.

The ILO strategy on the extension of social protection is based on the two-dimensional strategy adopted by the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference in 2011. This two-dimensional approach aims at the rapid implementation of national social protection floors containing basic social security guarantees that ensure universal access to essential health care and income security at least at a nationally defined minimum level (horizontal dimension), in line with the Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202), and the progressive achievement of higher levels of protection (vertical dimension) within comprehensive social security systems according to the Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102).

Social protection floors are nationally-defined sets of basic social security guarantees which secure protection aimed at preventing or alleviating poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion. These guarantees should ensure at a minimum that, over the life cycle, all in need have access to essential health care and basic income security.
National social protection floors should comprise at least the following four social security guarantees, as defined at the national level:
  1. Access to essential health care, including maternity care;
  2. basic income security for children, providing access to nutrition, education, care and any other necessary goods and services;
  3. basic income security for persons in active age who are unable to earn sufficient income, in particular in cases of sickness, unemployment, maternity and disability; and
  4. basic income security for older persons.
Such guarantees should be provided to all residents and all children, as defined in national laws and regulations, and subject to existing international obligations.
Following the introduction of the SPF in 2009, the ILO Regional Office for the Arab States has spearheaded social protection interventions in the region. The ILO’s response currently entails:
  • Technical advisory services to ILO’s Arab States constituents on social protection topics, including actuarial issues, legal topics, in the context of national policies to guarantee the financial and economic sustainability of social protection systems.
  • Working with its tripartite constituents and the National Social Security Funds in Lebanon in order to reform the end of service indemnity scheme into a pension scheme, as well as extend social protection to persons with disabilities and healthcare coverage to informal workers.
  • Working to generate evidence to inform the Social Security Corporation (SSC) in Jordan on the extension of social security coverage to unregistered workers in the informal economy, implementing the regulations for the extension of coverage to flexible and part time workers, and documenting the impact of their maternity scheme and look into enhancing its coverage.
  • Working with tripartite constituents in the occupied Palestinian territory to reach an agreement on a new draft for the social security law and the Palestinian Social Security Corporation and to establish a national SPF.
  • Providing actuarial and legal advisory services to Iraq for the reform of social security system for private sector workers.