In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that: “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” opening a new era in international law, where the respect of the individual became a cornerstone. The Declaration also stated, in article 22, that:
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realisation, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organisation and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
Member states of the United Nations are thus entrusted with the fundamental role of ensuring that their citizens have access to social security. In our troubled times, this continues to be a challenge: today, only 20% of the world population enjoys sufficient social protection, and half is simply not covered at all. The United Nations has made improving these figures one of its main goals. Meanwhile, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has put social protection at the core of its “Decent Work Agenda”, which drives its strategy and goals. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights highlights, this is of major importance not only in preserving the health and safety of human beings, but also in ensuring their well-being, dignity and happiness. In its “Decent Work” report, the ILO writes: “While social protection can meet essential needs of human survival, its potential benefits are more far-reaching. In rapidly developing societies social protection can bolster stability, minimizing social unrest and helping countries adjust more easily to social and political change.” But while it is true that social protection is a crucial challenge in emerging countries, as well as in the developing world, post-industrial countries are also facing challenges of their own related to the issue. These challenges concern governments, of course, but also citizens, associations and corporate companies.
Even though many people lack proper coverage, the ILO reminds us that no country in the world is completely devoid of any form of social security. Taking a quick look at social protection across the world, we can distinguish three broad categories. First, there are the least-developed countries, where less than 10% of workers are covered. In these countries, the most urgent issue is thus to extend coverage to a larger number of people. In middle-income countries, 20 to 60% of workers are covered. There, the challenge also lies with extending coverage, and reinforcing cover for those who are already protected, as systems are often partial, and do not take into account all the major risks: health, old age, unemployment and poverty. In fact, many of these countries formerly had centrally planned economies, with a social protection system that was embedded in the overall political organisation. With the collapse of these governments (in Eastern Europe, for instance), people have been left without social protection, and replacement solutions still have not been durably installed. Finally, in industrial and post-industrial nations, the coverage rate climbs to almost 100%. But these countries also face difficulties, as they are under growing pressure
from higher unemployment, ageing, increasing numbers of female-headed households, higher poverty rates, greater mobility and changing expectations as to the role of social protection systems », according to the ILO.
In all three categories, another question is also emerging: with growing numbers of workers operating in the informal economy (i.e. the part of the economy that is not taxed and develops outside the States’ control), how fair, efficient and equitable are conventional social protection systems? The ILO insists that “in a world of rising social exclusion the arguments for social protection remain as valid as ever,” and that the flaws in the system should drive change rather than support a lessening of social benefits.
The organisation has thus defined three main objectives to improve social protection across the world. First, extend the coverage and the effectiveness of existing social security systems. Second, promote labour protection, i.e. decent conditions of work in terms of wages, working times and health and safety. There, companies have a major role to play, as internal decisions on staff management strongly impact employees’ quality of life, and more generally the average status of workers in a given country. Third, participate in dedicated programmes to protect particularly vulnerable groups, such as migrant workers, workers in the informal economy and workers suffering from AIDS and other diseases.
We can also cite here the joint initiative launched in April 2009 by the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (UNCEB): the Social Protection Floor Initiative. It is co-led by the ILO and the World Health Organisation (WHO) and involves 17 organisations, including international financial institutions and UN agencies. The initiative aims to
promote access to essential social security transfers and social services in the areas of health, water and sanitation, education, food, housing, life and asset-savings information,
insisting on the need for “comprehensive coherent and coordinated social protection and employment policies.”
The crucial role of governments and companies
While international efforts are needed, because they drive concrete change, but also because they put the social protection issue on the map for other actors, this issue must be addressed primarily at national level (and sometimes at regional level, in the European Union for instance). Helping countries develop, sustain and perpetuate efficient and sound protection systems is a task that will keep the world busy in the near future. It is important that social security is endorsed by public entities, in order to ensure that it is as equitable as possible, and that it covers the widest range of people possible. But companies are certainly not left without responsibility. Firstly, because they are accountable for the working and living conditions of their employees, and it is their social role to respect and sometimes exceed legal obligations in terms of wages, working hours, safety guarantees, etc. Secondly, because some of them have the power and means to effectively protect their employees and their families through tough times.
We have already talked about DanCares, the healthcare coverage that Danone has been developing over the past two years for all of its employees everywhere the company operates. With over 60,000 employees living in developing countries, the Group chose to “provide all Danoners around the world with access to health benefits coverage,” as explained by Muriel Pénicaud, Executive Vice-President Human Resources at Danone.
More than half of Danone’s employees were covered by Dan’Cares at 2012 year-end, which accounts for 55,000 employees.
The company has also seen business advantages resulting from the initiative, with lower staff turnover in countries like Mexico, Indonesia and China: Danone is now more attractive to workers, who are keen to work in a secured environment. In these fast-growing countries, where governments are already striving to widen social protection coverage, initiatives like DanCares can only foster change and make it happen more rapidly. They set a precedent, hopefully inspire other companies and, above all, show that the solutions to complex problems are always multiple, and achieved through cooperation. As the ILO states, “official systems will need to work closely with community schemes. Lacking public provision, many communities and groups of workers have established their own systems of mutual support to share risks and resources. Such associations make an important contribution and need to be fostered and developed.” Because of their size, their resources and their structure, company-led programmes also need to be taken into account as part of the solution to the social protection challenge.