Scale Up Social Protection

We must not lose what is already acquired. But that is not enough: all social forces should militate for scaling up social protection

Although at the global level there seems to be a turnaround in the economy especially in those countries that were affected quite significantly by the financial crisis of 2008, such as the North America and Europe, the situation in several other countries remains precarious for many reasons. Among these are ongoing civilian or military conflicts, corruption, political instability or dictatorial regimes, the profligacy of political leaders, state capture are some of the most important. In all this it is the common man who suffers the most, in the form of poverty or lack of job opportunities. Under such circumstances, their protection becomes a necessity, and in our country too this is an issue that must be looked at seriously.

According to the tradingeconomics.com website, in the previous quarter, the unemployment rate was 7.0 percent. Unemployment Rate in Mauritius averaged 7.60 percent from 1983 until 2017, reaching an all time high of 19.70 percent in the fourth quarter of 1983 and a record low of 2.70 percent in the fourth quarter of 1991. On the other hand, the website www.statista.com displays a bar chart showing unemployment rate in Mauritius from 2012, with projections to 2022. Starting from 8% in 2012 it is 6.87% in 2018 and goes down further to 4.34 % in 2022.

The same website has another chart showing the 20 countries with the highest level of unemployment. No surprise perhaps that top of the list is Zimbabwe with 95% (!), leaving Gabon at the bottom at 28%. One is left to wonder just how the good people of Zimbabwe are coping to survive, for they surely must be at least existing, while their former president Mugabe has been given what one could call a platinum exit – better still than a golden one! – by his successor, with an over-generous allowance and perks, along with the palatial mansion he has been assigned. The allowance and perks certainly remind us of the similar situation of our Mauritian presidents, even if they exit in ignominy post-platinum.

This is not an irrelevant point when we think of the pitiably low levels of earnings of hundreds of thousands of our citizens, whose hard work undergirds the running of the country and who surely deserve more than the fortunate ones who earn super allowances, short mandates also notwithstanding. Against this is the reality of unemployment for those who are seeking jobs.

While the estimated unemployment trend may be a cause for official relief, since the Ministry of Labour as a rule contests the figures from the Central Statistics Office (revising them downwards to prove that the measures being taken are showing results), the fact remains that given the relatively small size of our population a few thousands mean a lot in our context. In 2022 this could still mean perhaps around 40 000, and by our standards this is no small number.

There are many reasons for unemployment which from an economics point of view is a very complex subject no doubt. We often cite the fact that many Mauritians shun some types of employment and we therefore have to import foreign labour. This phenomenon has been seen in all industrialised countries: a recent illustration is the ‘Windrush’ issue in the UK, which was about immigrants imported from the Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1971, precisely to perform jobs that native Britons wouldn’t do. And we can also think of the Mexican farm labour without which the lemon crops of California in the US would not be harvested.

Given this reality, we therefore have to analyse the reasons for this state of affairs, and the working conditions that make local job seekers shy away from such occupations may probably be a factor. Elsewhere in today’s issue of MT, Sada Reddi emphasises the role that trade unions have played in Mauritius in this process, and how somehow they do not seem to be as effective when faced with the relatively new phenomenon of Government-Capital nexus, making a call therefore that they must reorganize themselves to be the once-powerful force that they were and represent workers’ interests more pro-actively.

This is going to be increasingly important, despite the apparently encouraging projection of future unemployment figures, because the nature of work is changing, and that will affect both those seeking and those already in employment. We may be still far off from the impact of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robots that will replace humans in the workplace, but those in the workforce will continue to be subjected to the changes that are already taking place. In an article in ‘Social Europe’ of 1st May 2018 by Liina Carr (‘Widening The Social Protection Safety Net’), the author notes how ‘in the past … many workers had secure long-term jobs, but the world of work has changed. Precarious and temporary jobs, freelancing, self-employment and small entrepreneurship, part-time and platform work and heavier caring responsibilities when communal services are cut back … all these factors contribute to a loss of earnings and therefore a loss of entitlements’. To these factors we may add lack of structural employment, and cyclical/seasonal unemployment – all of which affect us as well.

There is also the inequality gap that seems to resist all attempts at closing within countries – and in Mauritius it is right under our eyes – so along with the fluctuating mass of unemployed there are also those who are already in the vulnerable groups who need support and protection. The farsightedness of our pioneering political leaders in establishing and then maintaining the welfare state at all costs – despite the pressure of structural adjustments and devaluations – and which includes universal health coverage, universal pension and targeted social benefits, and free education is the reason why we produced the healthy, literate, skilled and educated workforce that is to a large extent responsible for our progress since we gained Independence. In the same article referred to above, the author makes a case for expanding social protection to Member States in the European Union according to EU directives and standards where this has not yet been done.

This is so as to ‘guard against the major risks of life such as loss of income due to parenthood, domestic break-up or old age, involuntary unemployment, caring duties, illness and disability. It should break the cycle of poverty that otherwise passes easily from one generation to the next’, adding that ‘trade unions have always defended everyone’s right to an equal chance for a decent life, and we believe the EU should do more to guarantee it’.

In the same line of thinking, at the minimum, we must not lose what is already acquired. But that is not enough: all social forces should militate for scaling up social protection to all the aforesaid categories.

This is indeed very doable if the country is serious about fighting corruption, combating the wastages that are repeated each year as detailed in the annual Audit Report, and revisiting the excessive entitlements — to a select privileged clan of holders of office — that could be diverted to the more noble purpose of protection of the genuinely needy.

 


* Published in print edition on 4 May 2018

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