On September 1, 2021, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published the World Social Protection Report 2020–22: Social Protection at the Crossroads – in Pursuit of a Better Future (Social Protection Report). The Social Protection Report finds that the while the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep-seated inequalities and significant gaps in social protection coverage, it has also provoked an unparalleled social protection response from governments across the globe to protect people’s health, jobs, and incomes. However, the report also finds that differing social-economic recovery responses to the pandemic between higher-income and lower-income countries may challenge the development gains of the latter in ensuring social protection.
An especially pertinent highlight of the Social Protection Report with regard to social protection responses to the COVID-19 pandemic is the finding that only one-third of working-age people have income security protected by law in case of sickness. The ILO notes in particular that many countries have opted to provide paid sick leave fully or partially through employers’ liability rather than sickness benefits, which tends to exclude some categories of workers. Thus, the ILO concludes that governments should not solely rely on employers’ liability to provide income security in the case of sickness in public health crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
What Is Social Protection?
[s]ocial protection, or social security, is defined as the set of policies and programmes designed to reduce and prevent poverty and vulnerability across the life cycle. Social protection includes nine main areas: child and family benefits, maternity protection, unemployment support, employment injury benefits, sickness benefits, health protection, old-age benefits, disability benefits and survivors’ benefits. Social protection systems address all these policy areas by a mix of contributory schemes (mainly social insurance) and non-contributory tax-financed schemes (universal/categorical schemes and social assistance).
Social Protection and International Law
The ILO has developed an international framework (ILO Conventions and Recommendations) that guides the establishment, development, and maintenance of social security systems globally. The Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102) (59 ratifications) refers to the nine main areas described above, and establishes the basis for the development of social security throughout the world. Convention 102 is supplemented by the Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202), which encourages ILO member states to formulate strategic approaches to close coverage and adequacy gaps by establishing national social protection floors, which should guarantee, among other things, “basic income security for persons of working age who are unable to earn sufficient income, in particular in cases of sickness, unemployment, maternity and disability.” These instruments, establishing the international framework for social protection, are in addition to the Income Security Recommendation, 1944 (No. 67), the Medical Care and Sickness Benefits Convention, 1969 (No. 130) (16 ratifications), and the Medical Care and Sickness Benefits Recommendation, 1969 (No. 134).
Social Protection and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2015, are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure all people enjoy peace and prosperity. While a number of SDGs relate to social protection — especially SDG Target 1.3 on social protection and SDG Target 3.8 on universal health coverage (see Figure 1.1 of the Social Protection Report at 32) — the ILO reports that none of the SDG goals or targets specifically address income security protected by law in times of ill health and that the issue is currently underresearched.