Social protection and Covid-19

The National Coordination Committee on Covid-19 should take it upon itself to fill the gaping holes in employment data

The mistrust and Covid-related relief integration between the federal and Sindh government is, unfortunately, increasing with the passage of time. Given the quasi-consensus among the analysts that the worst is yet to come, particularly, in terms of economic crisis, this could mean even more misery for the ordinary citizens, a majority of whom have been left to fend for themselves.

Well-meaning individuals on both sides could help improve the situation if they can rise above the current political economy of social protection in Pakistan. An effort is being made to rescue the national Covid response from everyday politicking with the help of two interventions by the Sindh government and the federal government, which were announced with great fanfare but then almost forgotten.

On May 15, the Sindh government promulgated the Sindh Covid Relief Ordinance, which primarily focused on saving employment in the face of a prolonged lockdown of the economy. The same day, the ECC approved an additional funding of Rs 75 billion to reach out to the workers affected by Covid who remain vulnerable and unreached. Both the governments, therefore, are targeting the same class.

Contrary to the tall claims made by the governments, both initiatives have failed to create a major difference, particularly in the sectors which are still locked down or are only partially operational like universities, restaurants, small service sector firms, etc.

This should be no surprise as the international experience shows that reactive social protection policy (against unemployment, hunger, destitution, serious sickness and severe disability) hardly works. In most cases, its real gain is some additional publicity for the authors.

We must appreciate the Sindh government for bringing out the Ordinance, as it is for the first time through this law that all types of workers have been recognised, regardless of their mode of employment. Also, it accepts the principle of unemployment allowance as a right in a dire situation.

This recognition is very important. But the same government, now responsible for the operationalisation of this right, has failed miserably to implement its social security laws. Had the Sindh Employees Social Security Institution secured 95 percent of the labour, instead of 6 percent today, we would have been discussing the quantum of aid to be given. Instead, we are wondering as to how to reach out to the workers, who have been working but their past work has not stood them in a good stead in this crisis time.

The major weakness of the Sindh Covid Relief Ordinance is its inability to clarify as to who would bear the burden of the enhanced social protection? Had the Sindh government taken its own labour laws seriously, the answer to this question could have been rather easy to provide. It has been two months already and the necessary circulars to operationalise the Ordinance have not been issued.

Prime Minister Imran Khan admitted in his budget speech that the government does not have employment data for 80 percent Pakistanis. It has been a collective failure on the part of past governments, employers and employees.

The federal government’s enhanced funding of Rs 75 Billion for labour cannot be effectively disbursed in the absence of employment data in Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan admitted in his budget speech that the government does not have the employment data on 80 percent of the Pakistanis. It has been a collective failure on the part of past governments, employers and employees.

But instead of correcting past mistakes by putting in place an employment information management system, the federal government continues to thump its chest and claim that it has provided so many billions to so many families. The prime minister’s speech at the ILO on July 8 on the Global Summit was an opportunity for him to announce some major initiatives to plug the employment data gap without which no country can put in place a social protection system.

In the developed countries, it is the system of social insurance, which addresses risk, providing protection against life-course contingencies, such as old age and maternity, or work-related contingencies like unemployment or sickness.

More popularly, it is called cradle-to-grave social protection financed in many countries through the payrolls. In the developing countries it is the social assistance - usually preferred by the donors as a policy choice - which supports those in poverty.

A third stream, which in Pakistani context could be called institutional labour welfare, arises out of the labour-market regulation, where social security is a part of labour rights, ensuring basic standards at work with the rights to voice and organisation. Our provincial social security institutions embody these rights of labour.

We have all three forms: i.e., social insurance, social assistance in the form of Ehsaas and social security institutions at the provincial level and Employees Old Age Benefit Institution [EOBI], Workers’ Welfare Fund [WWF] at the federal level. Unfortunately, all three operate in silos, creating serious problems of coherence at the policy level and integration at the operational level.

Ideally, the Rs 75 billion additional support given in the name of the labour should have been channelised through the provincial social security institutions. It is rank politicisation of social protection to arbitrarily mingle the poor and the worker. As a result, we neither have a robust baseline of social protection expenditure at the provincial and national level, nor are we able to meaningfully link the social protection expenditure with the indigenously developed social protection indicators.

Pakistan did put in place a plethora of poverty reduction programmes, which obviously did not succeed and we are left with little choice but to assign social assistance programmes a primary role. With Ehsaas, it has become large-scale. As a standard safety net programme is residual in nature, i.e., it protects a minority, we never developed the capacity to deliver minimum social protection to all at all times.

Here, in Pakistan, we had a very simplistic approach to scale it up, i.e., from the poorest to the poor, based on a highly problematic proxy mean testing, plagued with very grave targeting problems. Now, apparently, every fourth Pakistani would be a recipient of Ehsaas in the Covid crisis but the programme in its design and targeting is so problematic that this ‘reactive’ social protection would hardly help and a massive civil unrest is staring us in the face.

As Covid lingers on, the National Coordination Committee on Covid-19 should take it upon itself to urgently fill the gaping holes in employment data, integrate and upscale the existing patchy and fragmented social protection measures on an urgent basis into a system of minimum social protection for all in this crisis situation.

The writer, a former federal secretary, is currently the executive director of Social Protection Resource Centre, Islamabad. He is also the convenor of Pakistan Alliance for Social Protection

Social protection and Covid-19: NCC should take it upon itself to fill gaping holes in employment data