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ILO Social Protection Week
‘Social protection, a global priority and investment with high returns’
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

25 November 2019

Director-General Ryder,
Distinguished panellists,
Colleagues and friends,

The one hundredth anniversary of the ILO is a cause for celebration across the human rights community. As Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pointed out, "Your agenda is at the centre of people's concerns. The dignity of decent work.  A fair globalization.  Social justice for everyone, everywhere." 

So I am delighted to take part in this week of discussions, which aims to drive stronger progress on universal social protection and SDG 1.3. Investing in effective social protection will be key to ensuring that people can harness the benefits of economic and technological change, to fulfil their human rights.

We still have one decade to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – including SDG 1.3. A decade is not long, but it can be sufficient, if we accelerate and intensify our work. I believe that significant progress towards universal social protection can spark a surge of progress across the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Because, like all human rights, measures for the right to social protection have very broad impact across societies, generating greater harmony, resilience, participation, inclusion – and greater development and peace.

We need a change in pace and a powerful political commitment from States and the international community to invest in social protection. Development cooperation should support this crucial effort. Because these measures do indeed constitute a very good investment.

Firstly, ILO's analytical research has clearly demonstrated that even the poorest countries can afford a universal social protection system. Its studies have estimated that an outlay of as little as 1.6 per cent of GDP will cover the cost of providing allowances for all children; maternity benefits for all women with new-borns; benefits for people with disabilities; and universal old-age pensions.

Many countries have already adopted  important aspects of universal social protection schemes – among them Argentina, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Cabo Verde, Chile, China, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Maldives, Mauritius, Mongolia, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and Uzbekistan.

Among them, Argentina's SUMAR programme for pregnant women; Mongolia's family benefits scheme; and measures adopted in China, Colombia, Rwanda and Thailand have had positive impact on universal health coverage and the right to health, particularly for children.

For those countries which have not yet done so, I think the question is not so much whether they can afford to advance universal social protection measures, as whether they can afford not to.

When I was President of Chile, we undertook several social protection measures, including pension reforms to introduce more solidarity – with redistribution and coverage to ensure that the most vulnerable could count on a basic salary. A wealth of economic and social data indicated that these policies were boosting economic growth and enhancing, not only basic justice, but also social cohesion.

At the request of the ILO Director General, I then chaired a Commission that would develop recommendations in this area for Member States. Our report, "Social Protection Floor for a Fair and Inclusive Globalization," found that investing in social protection systems pays off in the short-term – by mitigating crises – and in the long term, by nurturing human development and productivity.

To sum up a complex topic: it appeared that austerity was not the recipe for success in tackling economic and financial crisis. Social protection floors should be established in every society. And this was the basis for the ILO's  Recommendation 202, which was adopted in 2012. Recommendation 202 provides guidance to member States in building comprehensive social security systems, and extending social security coverage, by establishing national floors of social protection that are accessible to all in need. 

Since then, more than 40 countries have been able to develop social protection floors, which guarantee specific rights. My Office and other UN bodies have worked with ILO to provide support to many of these States, as well as taking global action to promote the right to social security, including through a common web platform.

For instance, hunger is again on the rise, for the third consecutive year. Some 820 million people are going hungry, according to FAO's latest report. At the Committee on World Food Security, my Office has been promoting the adoption of social protection systems to advance realization of the right to food, and as a tool to fight hunger and inequalities, drawing attention to the specific situation of rural women.


Evidence from countries at every level of development clearly demonstrates that social protection systems mitigate the shock of crises and downturns, and nurture stronger and more resilient economies.

They can cushion the negative impact of unemployment, create access to further education, improve labour market opportunities, and secure access to core elements of the rights to health, food, water, sanitation, education, and housing, including at moments of personal crisis. This kind of help ensures that individuals and families are protected from the worst impact of upheavals. When times are hard, it saves lives – and can safeguard economies from disaster.

But today, less than 30% of the world's people have adequate social protection coverage, and more than half have no overage at all. In developing countries, 8 out of 10 people receive no social assistance, and 6 in 10 work informally, without insurance.  Meanwhile, in both developing and developed economies, globalization and the digital economy are increasingly introducing flexible and casual working arrangements, which may undermine labour rights. Youth unemployment rates have once more begun to rise, with 70 million young people unemployed in 2017, according to ILO. Globally, three out of four young people who do have work are engaged in informal employment – a ratio which rises to 19 out of 20 for young women and men in developing countries.

Around the world, anxiety about this inequality and exposure to risk is growing. We're seeing mass protests demanding action to uphold human rights – economic and social equality, civic freedoms, and adequate standards of living, including decent work, adequate food and housing, quality education and healthcare.

It is urgent that we take action. Young people – including, and perhaps especially, young women – are at the forefront of these protests. They are the engines of our societies and our future. We simply cannot afford to let them down.

We must curb inequality, provide safety nets in the changing world of work and urgently respond to these demands for equality and the conditions necessary to lives of dignity.

Well-designed universal social protection systems can have powerful impact on the specific needs of young people – including in their search for decent work. By creating access to further education, they also help everyone respond to the changing world of work. When embedded in other human rights measures, they can also specifically address the situations of people from discriminated groups and people with disabilities. Universal social protection can also make a critical contribution to gender equality.

Let me use a quite obvious example. Women bear a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work and, as a consequence, are more likely to be employed in precarious, ill-paid jobs – with no access to social insurance benefits such as paid maternity leave, unemployment insurance or pensions. Currently, 740 million women make their living in the informal economy, and in low-income countries, 92 per cent of women are employed informally, compared with 87.5 per cent of men. Social protection policies that take into account women's unequal burden of unpaid care work throughout their lives – including time spent bringing up children, which may prevent them from making equal contributions – can correct this imbalance and ensure that women can live with dignity into old age.

Human rights-based analysis can help policy-makers achieve greater clarity about factors, such as discrimination, which social protection measures should address. It can also offer guidelines and recommendations for the laws and programmes that will be most effective. Above all, it promotes awareness that everyone, especially the most marginalized, has a right to social protection that shields them from harm and shocks.

My Office and ILO will be holding a technical session on Wednesday, on building human rights based social protection systems. I hope many of you will attend, and I look forward to hearing about the ideas and issues that will be discussed in the course of this meeting.

Thank you