Social Protection

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2017

WHEN I entered the job market in the late 1970s, income security in old age was an idea from another planet for women in Pakistan. Not because they weren’t working then or 10 decades earlier: they were toiling at home, in the field and in offices, schools, hospitals and other public domains. It was just that money was a male matter and what was drilled into women was to secure a husband and not income security in old age. Are young women money-smart nowadays and do they think about income security?

The indicators tell a different story: very few women from the working-age population are covered for old-age benefits. Men are not doing well either when it comes to socioeconomic security. It is because the state is least concerned with the welfare and well-being of citizens across the life cycle. Despite provisions made in the Constitution (Article 38), the government has failed to extend socioeconomic security to all. Pakistan has ratified only one, out of nine, ILO conventions and recommendations related to social security.

The country’s social protection system comp­rises three types of schemes — social security/social insurance (eg EOBI, WWF — the pension and workers welfare fund respectively), social assistance for the poor (eg zakat, Benazir Income Support Programme) and labour market programmes (public works programmes).

According to the ILO Social Protection Report 2017-2019 released late last month, Pakistan spends a measly 0.2 per cent of its GDP on social protection. The coverage for social protection in Pakistan is just 2.3pc of the total population of older persons, compared to 24.1pc in India; 25.2pc in Sri Lanka; 33.4pc in Bangladesh and 62.5pc in Nepal. This stark contrast with neighbouring and regional countries shows a deep flaw in our socioeconomic policies.

Though Pakistan started off with the rights-based approach for social protection and put in place the contributory schemes for employees’ benefits and old-age pension, over the decades, the social protection policy has completely veered towards assistance to the marginalised through non-contributory, tax-financed benefits.

The latest policy document fails to clearly define social protection and, instead, emphasises marginality. In Vision 2025, social protection is defined as a “means of strengthening marginalised people’s capabilities to mitigate and manage their risk and vulnerability”.

Apart from pension schemes for government employees and army personnel, the coverage of contributory social welfare schemes for workers remains limited to a minuscule segment of registered employees in the formal sector. The EOBI, as of today, has only 0.58 million beneficiaries out of the 61.04m civilian labour force. The majority of the workforce — agricultural workers, informal sector workers, domestic workers and home-based workers — are excluded from these schemes.

The government has committed to establishing a national social protection framework that “will harmonise federal and provincial level policies and programmes”, yet there is nothing tangible. Despite political autonomy and space after devolution, the provinces have not steered citizens’ welfare systems away from the rhetoric of ‘poverty eradication’.

The Punjab Social Protection Authority, established in 2015, formulated a social protection policy draft in 2016 with the help of ADB. It identifies ‘vulnerable groups’ and comprises 29 initiatives, but falls short of making the existing employment benefits schemes inclusive of the informal sector. Sindh instituted a steering committee in 2015 to formulate social protection policy. The committee does not have labour representation. The unresolved conflict between the provinces and the centre on devolution of the EOBI and WWF reflects poorly on the government’s intentions regarding citizens’ welfare.

According to an ADB report in 2012, social protection expenditure in Pakistan is dominated by spending on social insurance which accounts for 77.4pc of all social protection expen­­diture. Social assistance schemes get 19.9pc and 2.8pc is allocated to labour market programmes. “Most of the expenditure is spent on insurance and healthcare for government and formal-sector employees and army personnel … Given the large size of the military … it is not surprising that government pension schemes account for the largest proportion of social protection programme expenditures in Pakistan,” the report says.

Social security is a human right and the welfare and well-being of all citizens in all the stages of life is essential. Pakistan has in place social protection mechanisms which are in urgent need of reform. Expenditure on social protection should be raised to 2pc of GDP. Coverage of social insurance schemes must extend to informal sectors, inclusive of agriculture. Federal-provincial wrangling over EOBI and WWF must be resolved judiciously and in the interest of workers of all provinces. Social protection schemes and programmes need to be rid of corruption, political interference and mismanagement for effective service delivery.

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