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Social Rights and Protections

The foundation laid for social rights and a social contract

In the mid-20th century, after fifteen years of the Great Depression and the Second World War, the international community finally awakened to the realization that it needed to be more explicit and affirmative of what humankind should expect of itself. Since 1648 the principle of non-interference in a nation state’s sovereignty in the governance of its own people had been established by the Peace of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years War. This principle was challenged in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 as the Western World started to address nation states’ responsibilities for all humanity regardless of native origins or national citizenship.

The preamble to the UDHR establishes the concept of connection and obligation beyond national citizenship by asserting:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace . . . “ [emphasis added]

Article 25 of the UDHR defines the baseline expectation of what that international obligation meant in terms of the right for everyone “to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Article 23 establishes “the right to work” for everyone and decent standards for wages and working conditions enabling “an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.  Notably, the very first reference to social protection in this landmark international statement suggests that human dignity hinges primarily on fair and just employment and is “supplemented” by other income support, “if necessary.”  Today, it is recognized that social protection must encompass not only income supports but other critical supports in the areas of health, housing, child and family services, etc., and these should not be dependent on one’s participation in the workforce.

The UDHR’s framing of civil, political, economic and social rights became foundational to the post-war social contract among government, business and labour for the next thirty years. A series of declarations and conventions further elaborated on their meaning over the same period and beyond, although full implementation has clearly never been achieved.  There were, however, strong policy commitments and resource support from the 1940s into the late 1960s for a “welfare state” that combined full employment with income, health, housing and social supports building on Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States and comprehensive proposals such as the Beveridge Report in the United Kingdom and the Marsh Report in Canada.  

These landmark proposals became the foundation for the post-war welfare state reflected in both federal and provincial policy, legislation and program development and delivery in Canada over the next several decades. Family allowances, social insurance, pension and income assistance programs for the poor; funding and construction of hospitals, colleges and universities, and affordable housing; and, of course, national Medicare by the late 1960s. These became the backbone of a thirty year period of sustained prosperity, much reduced inequality and generally improved standard of living. 

Undoing of the social contract

The social contract served well for thirty years until market-dominating, neo-liberalism captured political leadership and government policy; full employment commitments succumbed to inflation control and unregulated capitalism; social programs endured erosion and outright assaults by austerity measures; and the trend to privatization of previously publicly delivered services began. The human dignity of the access of everyone to the basic necessities of life as espoused in the UDHR gave way as “temporary” food banks emerged in the 1980s and became institutionalized; the 1990s brought a crisis in affordable housing and growing homelessness; and the new millennium has featured increasingly precarious employment. The cumulative impact of these developments reflects a violation of the social and economic rights that the social contract was supposed to ensure.

Source:  http://trise.org                       Milton Freidman and John Maynard Keynes

Today’s increasing calls for the assurance of an adequate basic income for all is a natural result of the levels of insecurity that so many people experience and feel. A labour market that offers little decent work and mostly serves the interest of private capital alienates workers and reinforces public policy’s retreat from a commitment to full employment, while so far at least, offering no other income security to a large swath of the population. 

Re-framing social protection

As we emerge from the pandemic, what is the best path for re-asserting the commitment to human and social rights? How would a Social Commons lens ensure a system of social protections that would respect and reflect the promise of the UDHR of almost 75 years ago and even go beyond?

Francine Mestrum contends that a Social Commons lens can guide us in the enhancement of the health and well-being of all people and the sustainability of life on the planet. She not only sees the Social Commons framework halting the erosion of social rights and deconstruction of the welfare state since the 1970s but proposes that “social protection needs to be expanded, strengthened and re-conceptualized.”

The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks may offer the basis for re-conceptualizing social protection for a post-neo-liberal world.  In his The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (2007), Rabbi Sacks provides some sharp distinctions between a “social contract” and a “social covenant”:

Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences. Social contract is about government. Social covenant is about coexistence. Social contract is about laws and their enforcement. Social covenant is about the values we share. Social contract is about the use of potentially coercive force. Social covenant is about moral commitments, the values we share and the ideals that inspire us to work together for the sake of the common good. (p. 110)

As indicated earlier, the post- war social contract was a consensual institutional creation among government, business and labour.  There was very definitely keen sensitivity to the public will and expectations – reintegration of returning soldiers after fighting for country and democracy; realization that a government able to mobilize public and private resources for war could act in positive ways to avoid returning to pre-war conditions.  So, there was an implicit public consensus with a post-war social contract that embraced affordable housing, good jobs, educational opportunities, income supports and social insurance programs. Notably, government support for jobs, training and educational opportunities and other benefits were heavily biased towards white male war veterans and civilians even though women, indigenous and black citizens had also made a major contribution to the war effort both in the armed services and industry.

The long road of social and economic carnage produced by unfettered global capital since the 1970s has delegitimized activist government, weakened organized labour and undermined the social contract. The notion of “contractual” arrangements among major parties may inevitably be ephemeral or term-limited.  Perhaps, the notion of a “social covenant” offers the opportunity to create a much deeper sense of trust and solidarity at the community level as Rabbi Sacks suggests – one grounded in explicitly framed core values of equality, dignity, inclusion, justice and collaboration. This may even be more critical in a society in the 21st Century that is much more heterogeneous than post-war Canada. It may also produce a commitment to a renewed and more durable social contract appropriate to the needs of the Canadian population in the 21st century. 

In his articulation of a social covenant for the United Kingdom, Rabbi Sacks is clear that it requires deep conversation and consensus-building among the diverse groups within British society, a message which he also brought to a Vancouver audience in 2017. Similarly, Francine Mestrum asserts that the transformation of social protection in our time requires “in the very first place the participatory and democratic construction of it.” People in communities are challenged directly to engage and pursue a social consensus on the society they want, to act in community to create it, and to demand of their governments policy and resource support accordingly.

There are clear broad areas of social and economic policy that demand government action at the national level with coordination and administration at the provincial and municipal levels. The Covid 19 crisis has reaffirmed the essential role of activist government, which remains important post-pandemic. 

Source: www.infrastructure.gc.ca

Certainly, the pandemic has surfaced and heightened awareness in a number of critical areas of health and social need in each of which a very clear discussion of core values and principles could begin to converge into a new social covenant. For example, more than 15,000 deaths in Canadian Long Term Care has sparked the call for defining national standards of care, which is an opening to a deeper conversation on how we value the lives of older Canadians.  It has implications for supports grounded in human dignity and respect, which should be reflected both in policy and in ground-level service models. Another example is a greater public consciousness of how essential so much low wage and precarious employment is to the wider community.  This could lead to debates on our collective responsibility to insist on the creation and distribution of decent work equitably within a very diverse population, and again how that would translate in labour market policy and employment practices.

From a Social Commons perspective the key challenge is to figure out how to make that connection between innovative and adaptive support models at the community level with adaptive and supportive external policy frameworks and resource channels at the scale of the provincial and federal governmentsFrancine Mestrum writes:

Social commons go beyond states and markets but they are not without states and markets. In an ideal situation public authorities will help and support citizens’ initiatives and facilitate the links between their initiatives and the public institutional health system.

If, as Sacks suggests, the formal policy, legal and enforcement framework of a revitalized social contract is to take shape in our time, it will be much more robust and durable if it arises from a shared public commitment to a set of core values and principles as clear and strong as the 1948 UDHR was for its time.    

There is no shortage of issues on which to focus our attention and articulate clear value-based transformative change in our social protection system:

  • Expanding on our acute healthcare system to include universal coverage for denticare, pharmacare, and access to alternative preventive health disciplines.
  • Transitioning from institutionally based and profit-generating senior care to a dignified, responsive model that supports aging-in-place, family elder-care, and small scale community housing with appropriate service supports, developed and administered by local municipalities and non-profit organizations.
  • Ensuring adequate incomes for daily living needs regardless of attachment to the labour market.
  • Re-committing to full employment so that all who want a job are guaranteed one that provides decent wages, benefits and working conditions.
  • Converting private, profit-making service operations in all areas of community support such as child care into publicly funded community-planned and led services administered through municipal or non-profit auspices.
  • Creating safe, secure and affordable housing for all since a stable living situation serves as the base for family and community life.
  • Moving toward a caring and green economy that integrates both achievement social and environmental objectives with the creation of decent employment. 
  • Supporting and recognizing the multiple ways that people can contribute to society through participation in a caring and green economy.

The shared experience of the COVID-19 pandemic can move us to think deeply about the commitments that we need to make to each other going forward.  That could free us from the usual defensive posture, protective of the embattled social protections that we have, or inclined to test only incremental change.  Clear in our beliefs and vision of the society we want, we will be more confident in transformative strategies.

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