Building Back Better: Strengthening social protection in the EU

Joint webinar of the UN Human Rights Regional Office for Europe and the European Commission Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted unprecedented calls for more solidarity, equality, and social cohesion to make our systems and societies more resilient and able to withstand future shocks. On 23 June 2020, the UN Human Rights Regional Office for Europe and ILO Brussels invited experts for a public webinar on the human right to social protection in the aftermath of COVID-19, welcoming over 130 participants from around Europe to the discussion.

“We have witnessed serious problems with support systems for older persons and persons with disabilities. We have also seen people fall through the cracks of existing social protection programmes,” said Birgit Van Hout, UN Human Rights Regional Representative for Europe who also highlighted the gendered impact of the crisis.

Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, recalled that the right to social protection was enshrined in international law. But comprehensive social protection was also “a matter of enlightened self-interest for States as the best economic answer to the crisis and a way to support the recovery. It can encourage businesses, including small and medium size companies, to recruit workers despite future uncertainties.” 

Shahra Razavi, Director of Social Protection at the International Labor Organization stressed that: “to support a human-centred future, where human rights are enjoyed by all, economic and social policies need to work in tandem. Social protection systems are the best catalyst that we have for reconciling economic and social policies. This means integrating social objectives and human rights into economic policies and using fiscal policies to mobilize the maximum available resources.”

Ana Carla Pereira, Cabinet Expert for the EU Commissioner on Jobs and Social Rights explained that employment and social support were essential elements of the EU’s Recovery Plan proposal, which is the most financially ambitious recovery plan ever put forward by the European Commission. Despite robust systems in Europe, she observed that many parts of the population were not covered by social protection, such as the self-employed and youth. The crisis had brought renewed momentum for the European Pillar of Social Rights which, she said, “remains our compass of action.”

When it comes to social protection, “there is no one size fits all solution,” said Stefania Tripodi of the UN Human Rights Office. However, guidance from the international human rights mechanisms and the UN suggested a balance between contributory and non-contributory schemes, and between State and occupational systems, as well as adequate benefits, age and gender-responsive elements, and sustainable and equitable financing. Kroum Markov of the International Labour Organization referred to the international labour standards and principles on social protection as the “common good” that is shared by the international community.

Access to information and participation by rights-holders are crucial for any measures to work. But who needs to be at the table when it comes to developing people-centred social protection measures. And how can  participation be rendered meaningful for those who were already in a precarious situation before the pandemic struck?

“This can be achieved by investing in time, space and resources to listen to marginalized persons, like those living in poverty or the homeless, and involving them in the design of social protection schemes,” said Leo Williams of the European Anti-Poverty Network, referring to examples like the third sector platform in Spain.

“For their part, national human rights institutions can act as a bridge between individuals and the State, by monitoring the situation, advising the Government  and helping people understand their rights,” said Debbie Kohner of the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions.

The engagement with social partners in the design of social protection schemes was also identified as a critical factor for success. The important role of trade unions in ensuring decent wages, and securing future entitlements, pensions and equality of treatment was highlighted by Liina Carr of the European Trade Union Confederation. Rebekah Smith of Business Europe explained how engagement with the business community could help tailor social protection systems to the needs of the labour market.

In support of the EU’s and State efforts to build back better and greener, the Regional Office for Europe will continue to promote the work of international human rights mechanisms, leverage UN Human Rights’ technical expertise and advocate for social protection based on international human rights and labor standards.

Listen to the audio recording of the webinar here.

Check the full programme and speakers of our webinar here.

See also

Listen to the audio recording of the webinar here.

Check the full programme and speakers of our webinar here.