Introduction: Social Policy and Social Protection

International Labour Review, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Social Policy and Social Protection


The domain of social policy is vast. In fact, it largely serves to define a society. It includes most of what a community collectively does to protect its weakest members, but it also has to meet the social needs of all. Work is a central aspect of social life, and there are a great many concerns - different forms of employment, the distribution of work, a perceived conflict between workers and pensioners, among others. Then there is the need to extend protection to those - most workers, from a global perspective - who benefit from little or none. One of the main purposes of social protection is to provide an income floor, and that is generally lacking. Yet following on a century of impressive progress in some countries in providing protection for many historically disadvantaged groups - the elderly, the poorly educated, those with disabilities - it is now possible to envisage the progressive extension of protection to the world's poor and disadvantaged.

This special issue explores key aspects of social policy and social protection. Some current points of controversy and debate are underlined, and suggestions offered for their successful resolution. Leading experts take up major topics for discussion: the parameters of good social policy, the coverage of social protection, pension policy, and equal treatment for women. These are complemented by a perspective offering a guide to the debate on pension reform, book notes on several major publications in the field, a review of a set of books that discuss new forms of employment relationship and contract, and information on many other new publications.

In "Work and rights" Amartya Sen argues that it is time to scrutinize globalization for "the challenges it poses as well as the opportunities it offers". A "terrorizing prospect" to many, "it can be made efficacious and rewarding if we take an adequately broad approach to the conditions that govern our lives and work. There is need for well-deliberated action in support of social and political as well as economic changes that can transform a dreaded anticipation into a constructive reality." He underlines the strength of a universal approach to the pursuit of decent work: "The increasingly globalized world economy calls for a similarly globalized approach to basic ethics and political and social procedures."

A truly global view makes it possible to deal with real conflicts between different categories of workers - where they exist - and resolve them, as compared to advancing the cause of some at the expense of others. It is of course easier to deal with the interests of just some - wage workers in the formal sector, for example, or those in informal work, or homeworkers, or the unemployed. "It is a question of placing the diverse concerns within a comprehensive assessment, so that the curing of unemployment is not treated as a reason for doing away with reasonable conditions of work of those already employed, nor is the protection of the already-employed workers used as an excuse to keep the jobless in a state of social exclusion from the labour market and employment. The need for trade-offs is often exaggerated and is typically based on very rudimentary reasoning. Further, even when trade-offs have to be faced, they can be more reasonably - and more justly - addressed by taking an inclusive approach, which balances competing concerns, than by simply giving full priority to just one group over another."

The validity of a comprehensive approach is illustrated with the presumed conflict between those at work and the ageing of the population. As Sen points out, the presumption of rising unemployment if older workers remain longer at work, and of young workers having to sacrifice more to support an ageing population, constitute a messy argument based on gut reactions. "The combination of these unscrutinized feelings is to produce a hopeless impasse which rides just on unexamined possibilities, based on a simple presumption of conflict that may or may not actually exist. …

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