Davos Agenda

The world needs a strong and sustained dose of social justice. Here's why

The world needs a strong and sustained dose of social justice to make it a fairer place.

The world needs a strong and sustained dose of social justice to make it a fairer place. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo
Director-General, International Labour Organization (ILO)
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Social progress has receded due to a combination of COVID-19, geopolitical turmoil, an economic crisis and natural disasters across the world.
  • Millions of people who had escaped working poverty to join the middle class have been pushed back below the poverty line or very close to it.
  • The International Labour Organization's 2023 launch of a Global Coalition for Social Justice aims to prevent and reduce inequalities at all levels.

The impact of COVID-19, combined with geopolitical turmoil, an economic crisis and natural disasters, has pushed social progress backwards.

Millions who had escaped working poverty to join the middle class are now back below the poverty line or perched just above it. Many poor households are taking on more and more debt, as inflation drives food and energy prices higher and higher.

The pandemic also disrupted education for millions of school-age children. And we are now seeing a sharp increase in the number of young people who are not in employment, education, or training.

Enterprises have been hard hit, and many could not cope with the unexpected and cumulative events, especially small and micro-enterprises, many of which have had to cease operations. This situation is not sustainable.

We all say it: our common goal must be to build forward better from the COVID-19 pandemic. But what does it mean?

Social justice vital for an equitable recovery

For us at the International Labour Organization (ILO), this means prioritizing social justice and decent work as the driving forces for a human-centred recovery, as well as promoting increased investment in social policies and institutions built on social dialogue.

We know this is possible. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic showed that it can be done. Countries scaled up support to households, workers, and enterprises through the mechanisms of labour market institutions. Those with stronger labour market policies, institutions and social protection managed to counteract some of the pandemic shocks.

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But others were not so successful, as they did not have the right institutions, mechanisms and/or means in place. We need to get on with this task, because the next crises are already upon us, and fragilities are feeding on growing inequalities to a point that could bring the whole edifice down.

Today, labour standards, employment policies and social protection matter more than ever. The ILO’s latest Monitor on the world of work paints a deeply worrying picture for social justice.

Globally, we still have a deficit of hours worked that is the equivalent of 40 million full-time jobs, compared with the pre-crisis level in the fourth quarter of 2019. Behind this global figure is a very uneven and imbalanced situation.

While high-skilled occupations have experienced some employment recovery, employment in low- and medium skilled occupations remains below pre-crisis levels.

The latest ILO Global Wage Report shows that global real wages fell in the first half of 2022, resuming the long-term trend for real wage growth to be lower than productivity growth in many developed countries.

Divergence in jobs growth between countries

We also see continuing divergence in employment growth between high-income and middle-income countries. This is compounded by the fact that for developing countries, growth in informal jobs has been outpacing the growth in formal jobs.

The monetary and fiscal tightening in advanced countries to get inflation under control, and the debt burden in developing countries are having a negative impact on employment.

These trends are exacerbating poverty, inequalities, and economic insecurity. They are also reducing the capacity to address other injustices, including child labour, forced labour and human trafficking.

So, what the world needs right now is a strong and sustained dose of social justice. Decent work – such as access to jobs, rights at work, social protection, and social dialogue – is key to advancing social justice.

Given the importance of labour income in determining household income, and its link to the rise or fall of inequality in many countries, the world of work is a good entry point to start moving the social justice needle.

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But social justice goes beyond the world of work. At the most basic level, it is also about access to food, health, education, a safe and clean environment, and other key aspects that define the essentials of a dignified life.

It is in such circumstances that our mandate becomes more relevant than ever. Workers need decent work and for their rights to be respected. Enterprises need a chance to stay viable in an increasingly complex global economic system.

Everyone deserves to take control of their lives and achieving their potential, in the workplace or in society, and his ambition can only be achieved by acting on the different parameters and building blocks that constitute social justice.

Global Coalition for Social Justice set to launch

To this end, we aim to launch in 2023 a Global Coalition for Social Justice, together with a wide range of partners.

Its purpose is to create a global momentum to contribute to the reduction and prevention of inequalities and to ensure that social justice is prioritized in national and global policymaking and activities, in development cooperation and in financial, trade and investment agreements.

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How is the World Economic Forum promoting equity in the workplace?

It will advocate for social justice in multilateral debates and pave the way towards the emergence of a revitalized global social contract.

Beyond the individual human tragedies, and their impact on the world of work, the converging crises have shown the crucial need for concerted, coordinated action at all levels.

If we are to build just, sustainable, and resilient societies to achieve lasting peace, we must have social justice. The Global Coalition for Social Justice is both necessary and urgent.

Also Read: Global Risks Report 2023. As per the report, erosion of social cohesion and societal polarization is one of the leading risks for the world.

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Davos AgendaFairer EconomiesFuture of Work
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