Theme 3: Social Protection for Workers

The theme of ‘social protection’, rather than the more widely known term ‘social security’, has been used for this conference. Conventionally, the notion of social security has been linked to the workers’ status in formal labour markets and the focus has been on contingencies rather than on deficiencies. But more generally, the term refers to the use of social means to prevent deprivation and vulnerability to deprivation. From the point of view of developing countries, the two notions (viz. deprivation and vulnerability) are closely interlinked, which has necessitated a broader notion of social security.

The ILO and many other international organisations now use the broader concept of ‘social protection’, which can be defined as the set of public measures that a society provides for its members to protect them against economic and social distress caused by the absence or a substantial reduction of income from work as a result of various contingencies (sickness, maternity, employment injury, unemployment, invalidity, old age, or death of the breadwinner), provision of healthcare and of benefits for families with children. The ILO suggests that social protection should be approached in its various dimensions and through various phases. The dimensions include access to essential goods and services, prevention of and protection against various risks, and promotion of potentials and opportunities in order to break vicious cycles and pervasive tendencies. The phases are: before, during, and after the working years.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the UN, led by the ILO and the WHO has also defined the notion of the Social Protection Floor which covers income security and essential services, including health, based on a life cycle approach. ILO Recommendation 202 has further elaborated on this notion in the context of country-specific circumstances.

The Covid-19 pandemic which broke out in 2020 has once again highlighted the lacunae in the world-wide social protection system. The World Social Protection Report 2020-22 has shown that only 46.9 percent of the global population were effectively covered by at least one measure of social protection, and has recommended that countries follow the “high road to social protection” by investing significantly more resources in it.

India has been ramping up social protection measures for its population based on different approaches through the last several years. The country also took many urgent steps in the wake of the pandemic. The Code on Social Security which was legislated by the Indian Parliament in September 2020, aims at providing a legal framework for social security for all workers, both formal and informal.

The following could be indicative themes in this sphere though the paper contributors could pursue other related themes as well:

  • Researchers could analyse the global trends in social protection, both among developing countries (or within groups of them) and between developing and developed countries, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • During the post-reforms period in India, the main policy perspective has been influenced by neo-liberalism and by the trend towards globalisation, which has ultimately influenced the nature and pattern of social protection measures that are being implemented. Researchers may examine the influence of the macro policy environment on the expansion of social protection in India.
  • In recent years, following the reports of the National Commission on Employment in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), the number of social protection measures undertaken by both the Centre, and a number of states, has increased. Some of the social protection schemes such as Ayushman Bharat are very ambitious in scope and coverage. However, they remain non-legislated and do not reflect legal entitlements. It would be a timely exercise to present papers examining the design, implementation and effectiveness of such schemes at this conference. The papers may also attempt to capture the unevenness across states, across various groups of workers, and across the formal and informal economies.
  • A few important social protection measures, based on the concept of rights or entitlements, have either already been launched, or are on the anvil. For example, the already launched Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is based on the concept of a justiciable right. This also holds for the Right to Food under the NFSA. One of the premises of having a claim as a justiciable right is that the government will devote more resources to the fulfillment of the rights, and that rights-based claims will be associated with more accountable systems of delivery. Paper contributors may like to examine, through their papers, whether rights-based claims do indeed strengthen accountability structures and lead to greater demand and better delivery.
  • Further, both within the context of rights-based claims, and more generally within the context of increasing social protection, researchers may like to examine the actual financing of social protection measures, the scope for financing these measures and the priorities that could be adopted in the context of resource availability, as well as the scope for financing these measures, both at the national and state levels.
  • Researchers may like to examine the extent to which the Social Security Code 2020 provides and effective framework for universal social security in India and its strengths and weaknesses from various perspectives.
  • The NCEUS has argued for a social floor consisting of minimum conditions of work and of livelihood. Similarly, the ILO and the UN have now argued for a ‘social protection floor’. Researchers may also like to examine whether and how such a floor could become a reality in India’s context.