‘Will I still have my job next month? Will I still have my job tomorrow? What will I do if I have an accident at work, or if I get pregnant?’ Millions of workers are working daily, contributing to steady profits of their employers without ever knowing the answer to these questions with any certainty – or worse, knowing with a certainty that their jobs and their very health and lives could be disposed in an instant.
In the most recent crises that have unfolded in Asia, in 1997-1998, and lately since 2008, workers have been laid off en masse or kept in their jobs only on condition of accepting the most precarious and unprotected terms. At these times, the very occasions that workers are most in need of basic livelihood and security, what do governments and companies provide to those who have been driving the economy and development of society? What have country and regional leaders conceived as the way through the crisis?
Most countries in Asia have direly insufficient social security systems to protect its population. For instance, in the countries of ASEAN, with a total working population of 262 million people, 60% are working in the informal sector with little or no social protection against ill health, family emergency and financial uncertainty. In India and Pakistan, the informal sector where workers have virtually no security, comprises over 90% of the population. In Cambodia, there had been no nationwide social security; it is only in the last few years that a national programme has been instituted- but so far only for those working in the garment sector, and limited to work injury compensation.
Social security systems need funds, and as the articles in this issue lend evidence to, funds can and should be made available to all its population, including migrants, at whatever stage of development the country may be. In countries such as Pakistan and the Philippines, we can see that large portions of the national budget are allocated to defense. This is unconscionable when there are still such large parts of the population in grave poverty and joblessness. Even the ‘rich’ city state of Hong Kong, that has a budget surplus, refuses to establish a universal pension scheme and continues to have one of the largest wage gaps in the world. It can be illustrated by a simple example: where major conglomerate Hang Lung executives paid themselves HK$7.6 million (about US$1 million) in 2005-2006 even doubling it to about HK$19.6 million (US$ 2.8 million) three years later in 2008-2009. Ironically Hong Kong government has been refusing to set up a minimum wage for the territory, where one out of six people live below the poverty line.
Moreover, in some countries, the government and companies show a deliberate strategy of avoiding bearing the costs of social security for workers, by exploiting migrant workers and informal workers, who are ‘defined’ to be excluded from social security benefits, with the justification that they are transient workers only, or not ethnically the same. As long as there is a difference in benefits, companies will exploit the loopholes, which only works to the detriment of local workers. Thus, those covered by social security are a limited part of the population, and it is not truly universal.
Some countries which are moving from socialist to market economies, like Vietnam and China, are undergoing a change in the reverse direction – dismantling of the state sector insurance system. These should be closely studied, and their social security measures should be checked for adherence to ILO standards, such as convention No. 102. They tend to share the same failing, of excluding large classes of workers.
Yet care must be taken to not simply accept any social security scheme which bears the name. As many countries have already experienced – Philippines and Indonesia are prime examples, funds contributed by workers and employers easily become a pool of funds that gets used for political or other purposes, or for the profits of insurance companies, besides the original one of providing security in case of contingencies. Thus it is essential that administration of security schemes have genuine worker involvement in its formation and continuing operation. Otherwise the savings collected from workers and employers for the purpose of workers’ protection may become yet another arena for money-making and profiting from workers – while workers themselves bear the risk.
Fortunately, the argument for private insurance schemes has become weaker of late, as many people have lost huge amounts of their pensions, when they were linked to the market.
This issue of ALU hopes to address the very critical concern of lack of social security in Asia, and we have made efforts to bring the various voices from different countries on this issue, including joint effort at a recent roundtable (Asian Regional Roundtable on Social Security, October 2009) by 30 organizations from 12 Asian countries to address the issue at the regional level. It is fairly understood that there is imminent and urgent need of a comprehensive social security system, which is just and rights-based. The present economic system accounts for the inequities in society and leaves the majority either disposed or in a vulnerable position. However, social security for them should not be seen as a mere ‘correction’ measure (sometimes even as acts of charity) to keep the social (and economic) stability and which maintains the status quo—continued exploitation of the majority and privileges for a few.
The economic crisis provides an opportunity for labour movements to demand a better social security system, to counteract the hardship brought on by the crisis, and we can see strong movements for universal social security arising in Vietnam, India and China. It includes a strong push for inclusion of all workers, including both urban and rural.