by Francine Mestrum

Social Justice – Note for discussion

Social justice is a very broad concept. It includes many divergent phenomena, from inequality to health care and pensions, over gender, migration and racism. Many of these elements can also be examined on their own right, such as gender and structural racism, while others are consequences or causes of still more problematics. Just imagine the lack of health care because of an income deficit called poverty or the importance of social justice for matters of environmental sustainability. The interlinkages are many.

While justice as such has been a topic for extensive research  – ‘what is a just society?’ – think of John Rawls, Philippe Van Parijs, A.K. Sen, Nancy Fraser, Thomas Pogge and many others, always referring to an equality of all human beings,  ‘social justice’ more directly and inherently refers to society’s and individuals’ need for protection against discriminations and different kinds of setbacks, mostly by way of economic and social rights. In modern societies justice and social justice cannot be de-linked from universal human rights and from the crucial insight that universalism necessarily implies plurality. Indeed, it is precisely because we are all different, at a societal as well as at individual level, that we need equal rights in order to achieve similar outcomes in terms of equality and well-being.

The first preamble of the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states that ‘lasting peace cannot be achieved without social justice’ or, in other words, social justice, achieved by means of rights, comes prior to peace and is inherently part of the ‘social contract’ between States and citizens. Therefore, and in that context, the ‘protection’ which people need is not to be provided through armies or police forces, but indeed through political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights.

Social justice then goes beyond the mere systems of social protection most countries have or want to have, but also includes political equality and cultural diversity. While many criticisms on the UN Declarations on human rights are justified, regional interpretations exist and all peoples and countries are free to make their own divergent and cultural-specific charters, provided the main standards are respected, such as the dignity and equality of all, freedom from fear and from want and the right to life.

As for social justice, the UN Charter on economic, social and cultural rights leaves a huge margin of interpretation since it is less binding than the one on political and civil rights and there are a thousand ways to guarantee an ‘adequate standard of living’ as defined in its art. 11.

Social Protection

While ‘social protection’ will be the core of any social justice system, there are, again, one thousand ways to make it concrete.

In its first attempt ever to define ‘social protection’, the World Bank adopted a very broad concept of ‘risk management’ and included natural and economic catastrophes, as well as more frequent elements such as maternity, illnesses and old age. Stating that this ‘protection’ can be provided by States, markets and families, the proposed ‘solutions’ can surprise: child labour and migration are indeed ways to which families may resort for ‘coping with’ survival problems, but can hardly be seen as ‘protection’. Selling the family’s assets can also offer short-term relief but looks like the opposite of ‘protection’.

In its later reflections, the World Bank speaks of ‘risk sharing’ and agrees with a basic system of social security to which workers and employers contribute, while saying it does not like systems that burden the wage bill. Summarizing, one can say that the World Bank sticks to its philosophy on ‘poverty reduction’ of the 1990s and prefers private social insurance systems for all non-poor people.

The ILO adopted in 1952 an international convention on the minimum standards for social security with nine sectors: health care, unemployment, family and maternity, illness, old age and survival pensions, disabled people and labour accidents. Compliance with these standards is limited – 59 ratifications – and many African, Asian and Central-American States never got beyond social insurance of their armies, civil servants and workers of the tiny modern sector. The majority of their populations often remained rural or informal workers, most often without any rights.

With the international focus put on ‘poverty reduction’ as from 1990, clear and loud demands were made worldwide for fighting inequality and developing instead comprehensive systems of social protection. The ILO adopted in 2012 a Recommendation on ‘social protection floors’, promoting health care and basic income security in all sectors mentioned above. This new text is more limited than the Convention of 1952 but does speak of a horizontal (more coverage) and vertical (more scope) enlargement. It admits that the final objective of the ILO goes beyond this minimal programme but also made an agreement with the World Bank for promoting jointly ‘universal social protection’, where the ‘universal’ is not ‘universal’ but is limited to specific sectors of society (all children, for example).

At the level of the United Nations, the current programme of Sustainable Development Goals is also very limited in that it does mention health care, education, gender equality, water and sanitation as well as the fight against inequality, but leaves the doors wide open for very basic and minimal implementation.

Going beyond these minimal programmes, the network of Global Social Justice and the Asia Europe People’s Forum have been working on a concept of ‘social commons’. It accepts the principle of social protection with social insurances/security, public services, poverty eradication and labour law, and puts the focus on solidarity and participation. Social protection, should indeed not be in the hands of/organized by States, but should be the ownership of people who democratically decide on the conceptualisation, implementation and monitoring of the system and involve the State for taxing and redistributing functions.

Old-fashioned, bureaucratic, counterrevolutionary, Eurocentric and linked to colonialism?

While no one will contest the universal needs of people for shelter, food, clothes, health care, etc., social protection still has many enemies. Their main arguments and how they can easily be countered are:

  1. Social protection, in the form of welfare states, too often has been purely reformist, meant to maintain a profoundly unjust system and, by giving relief to those most in need, even reducing their desire for change. Social protection, then, can block political and societal change and inevitably leads to a kind of class compromise that paralyzes social relationships.

However, as have been shown in many studies, what triggers people to resist and revolt is not extreme poverty, but the feeling of inequality and injustice. Also, as has been explained extensively by several authors, social protection can also be transformative, geared towards changing the system instead of maintaining it.


  1. Social protection is the result of colonialism and would never have been possible without the huge profits made by transnational companies. While there can be no doubt about the exploitation of colonised countries this severely underestimates the struggles of the labour movement. Social protection, by the way, is not paid for by the State or by corporations, but by workers themselves. Moreover, companies which were active in the colonies were only a small minority compared to the overall group of employers who accepted the new labour rules and social security. Welfare states were not, of course, the exclusive result of labour struggles, nor were they proof of the altruism of employers or of governments. There were many good and relevant arguments to protect workers and their families.


  1. An argument that cannot be denied is that welfare states in western Europe – their cradle – would not have been possible without the Cold War and the fear of communism. However, is this a reason for rejecting them now?


  1. Welfare States are said to be bureaucratic, paternalistic and stigmatizing. In many cases, this is indeed true, though there is no reason at all why it has to be this way. Especially today, when it becomes so easy to use digital technologies, systems can be made much more efficient and rights can be attributed automatically.


  1. Welfare states were based on the principle of the breadwinner, the male head of household being in the labour market while mothers stayed home to take care of the family and only had ‘derived rights’. This is also certainly true though most of these biases have been eliminated since and there are no reasons why any of them should remain.

Nevertheless, a century and a half after the first labour market protections were introduced, the time has come to take a fresh look at our social protection systems. While campaigns in all countries of the South are going on, mainly led by ILO, UNICEF, UNDP and in its own limited way the World Bank, it is clear that for a comprehensive protection of people and societies the current social systems should be re-visited. Economies and societies have changed these past decades, needs are dynamic and the current COVID crisis shows more than anything else our interdependence and that traditional views on social protection are insufficient. The links between social justice and the environment and the economy are obvious. This means that what is needed is first of all an identification of the concrete links to other sectors, the conceptualisation of a universal system of rights and protection, with room for plural implementation, mobilizing the necessary resources and building the institutions at global, national, societal and local level for a democratic and participatory protection with emancipatory aims. Discussions should start at the global level as well as at grassroots level to know the needs to be met.

Principles and Arguments

In order to do so, some basic points that have to be taken into account:

  • Universal social protection (USP) systems necessarily have to be built on the basis of rights and of solidarity of all with all, at global, national and societal level, needed is a horizontal – between all people – structural solidarity;


  • USP systems are not redistributive mechanisms even if they can indeed reduce inequality. But inequality is fought in the first place with taxes and these taxes can possibly be used for developing social protection mechanisms. USP systems are based in the first place on an insurance principle which functions better as more people contribute and share the burdens and risks;


  • USP systems are not for fighting poverty but for preventing poverty. Poverty should be banned (Petrella) since it has no reason of existing in our wealthy world. USP’s aim is indeed to promote equality and to protect people against all kinds of risks, so that poverty can be avoided.


  • The aim of USP systems is to provide all people with an ‘adequate standard of living’ , as stated in the UN Charter. In market economies, income security will be a crucial element of it (


  • USP systems can only function sustainably if they are the result of democratic grassroots consultations and decisions and is the result of this. That is why they are inherently a political project and can be called ‘social commons’. People should see their USP systems as being their own.


  • USP necessarily has to lead to social justice, which is a much broader concept and obliges to look at social housing, at migration and asylum rules, at racism, at gender relations, that fall outside the scope of USP.


  • Most of all, a clear link has to be made visible and concrete with environmental policies. As the COVID-19 crisis made clear, people need more than doctors and hospitals, they also need water, clean air, healthy food, etc.


  • In this way, campaigns for social protection can also directly address social justice issues that go beyond social protection – gender equality, migration, etc. – to give more force to the demands and broaden the audience.


  • Looked at from this vantage point, with direct links to other sectors, social justice can be transformative and lead to major changes in our political, economic, social and environmental systems, putting an end to ‘might is right’ of social darwinism.


  • Social justice concerns directly speak to the needs of people who care about their health, the schools for their children, their wages and pensions. It is a successful topic for progressive political forces who promote change.