Seven Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Posted on Friday, 13 March 2020
Economic, Social, Cultural Rights

Social Justice Ireland believes strongly in the importance of developing a rights-based approach to social, economic, environmental, and cultural policy. Such an approach would go a long way towards addressing the inequality Ireland has been experiencing and should be at the heart of the development model for a just society.

We believe that the next Programme for Government should acknowledge and recognise seven economic, social and cultural rights. These are:

  1. Sufficient income to live life with dignity;
  2. Meaningful work;
  3. Appropriate accommodation;
  4. Relevant education;
  5. Essential healthcare;
  6. Cultural respect; and
  7. Real participation in society.

For these seven rights to be vindicated, greater public expenditure to fund a broader provision of services is required. The next Programme for Government should ensure that future tax and spending policy is focussed on building up Ireland’s social infrastructure, prioritising areas such as social housing, primary care and mental health facilities, elder care services and supports, and childcare and early education facilities. These are areas in particular where Ireland is experiencing an infrastructure deficit. Without adequate future planning for the kinds of social infrastructure and services we need, it will not be possible to maintain – never mind improve – the current standards of living for all citizens, from children to older people.

Sufficient Income

In every society, there is a certain minimum amount of income that is required by individuals and families to achieve a standard of living that is considered the social norm. That amount of money varies from country to country and depends on many things, including how developed the country is, cultural differences, and of course the cost of living. The cost of living is in large part determined by the extent to which essential goods and services are subsidised or provided for free by Government.

The aforementioned poverty numbers suggest that a significant number of people in Ireland do not have the income required to achieve a socially acceptable standard of living. In order to ensure that everyone in society has sufficient income to live life with dignity, Social Justice Ireland believes that:

  • The new Government must set ambitious targets for the reduction and eventual eradication of poverty and deprivation in Ireland, especially among children.
  • Core social welfare payments should be set at 27.5 per cent of Average Earnings, and then moved towards the Minimum Essential Standard of Living (MESL) rates over a five-year period.
  • The National Minimum Wage should be moved in the direction of the Living Wage, which is the hourly rate an individual working full time must earn to achieve the minimum socially acceptable standard of living in Ireland.

A system of Basic Income – something long advocated by Social Justice Ireland – would go a long way to ensuring that everyone has enough money to live life with dignity. It would place an income floor underneath every individual which can be relied upon regardless of changing circumstances, whilst also structuring Ireland’s welfare system in a way that better meets the needs of the modern economy, increasing flexibility for individuals of working age and reducing inequality in society. It would also be a great enabler, giving people greater control over their lives and how they wish to divide their time between work, education, caring, volunteering and leisure. Basic Income would be a key part of a welfare system that is fit for a 21st century economy, and the next Programme for Government should include, at least, funding for a Commission to study Basic Income and formulate a pilot project.

Meaningful Work

Every person in society should have the right to contribute to that society. Part of this means that worthwhile employment should be a genuine option for everyone who seeks it. Jobs should provide decent working conditions and pay a wage that allows employees to achieve a decent standard of living. Recent decades have seen a gradual erosion in the quality and security of employment, not just in Ireland but across the developed world.

Ireland’s rising employment numbers and falling unemployment rate are very welcome. Unemployment in Ireland stood at 4.8 per cent in November 2019. Considering that four years previously, unemployment stood at more than 9.5 per cent, this is a major achievement. However, a focus on headline figures means that many underlying problems are missed or ignored. For example, underemployment remains a significant issue, with an estimated 111,800 people (almost a quarter of all part-time employees) working part-time hours who would take full-time employment if they could find it.

A report published in late 2017 by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions asserted that while employment is rising, so too is the instance of precarious employment, with nearly 160,000 people – or 8 per cent of the workforce in Ireland – having significant variations in their hours of work from week to week or month to month. Over half of those were in temporary employment because they could not find permanent work – a 179 per cent increase since 2008.

But the definition of work should not be confined to employment. People contribute to society in more ways than simply engaging in paid employment. For example, Census 2016 shows that more than 4 per cent of the population provides some care for sick or disabled family members or friends on an unpaid basis . Many other people do substantial levels of voluntary work in their communities as well as doing unpaid work in their homes. The next Programme for Government needs to recognise the value of all such work and acknowledge the key role it plays in delivering progress, sustainability and social cohesion. Every human being has the right to meaningful work. Our system needs to recognise this and acknowledge the many kinds of work in which people engage.

Appropriate Accommodation

Housing is a basic need of all humans. But despite a booming economy Ireland has been doing a very poor job providing appropriate accommodation for its citizens. There can be no doubt but that the next Programme for Government will need to include radical new policies on housing.

The number of households on social housing waiting lists was 70,858 as at June 2018, a purported decrease of 16.2 per cent on the previous year. Despite this drop, the number is still very high. Homelessness numbers are at record levels, with more than 10,000 people accessing emergency accommodation, and child homelessness has increased fourfold over the last five years. Rental costs are also at an all-time high, making many cities (particularly Dublin) unaffordable to those on low or below-average incomes. Over the last decade, Ireland’s rental market has experienced a persistent and worsening shortage. Rents in Dublin have more than doubled since bottoming out in late 2010, while they are substantially higher than a decade ago across the entire country.

Meanwhile, though increases in private property sale prices have slowed down considerably in the last 12 months, they are currently still at levels considered unaffordable to those on average incomes. If everyone in society is to avail of appropriate accommodation, Government simply must intervene directly in Ireland’s dysfunctional housing market. It is clear that the Government’s current strategy, Rebuilding Ireland, is not working. In fact, it is failing across all five of the pillars upon which it is built.

To ensure that the accommodation needs of Irish people are met, the next Programme for Government must reconceptualise Government's role in housing provision. The ideological aversion to building social housing directly, or allowing Local Authorities to borrow to build, must end. Indeed, building more social housing is key to everything. Each social housing unit built not only takes one household off the social housing waiting list, but often frees up one unit in the private rental sector, helping to reduce demand and (eventually) cost in the private rental market. Government should also begin investing in housing provision through the cost-rental model.

Relevant Education

The impact of education in improving people’s lives and reducing inequality and disadvantage cannot be overstated. Access to appropriate education and skills development from early years to adulthood is one of the key public services that enables participation in society, public life and the labour market, and investment in education at all levels and throughout the lifecycle can help deliver a more vibrant economy and prepare citizens to fully participate in the society in which they live.

The focus of our education system should be to ensure people are engaged and active citizens and have the necessary critical and creative skills to navigate an ever-changing employment environment. This is especially important for children and young people today, who upon leaving formal education will be entering a very different employment landscape to their parents. 

To achieve these core policy objectives in the years ahead, the next Programme for Government should increase funding for education at all stages of the lifecycle. Priorities should include targeted funding for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds; increased investment in Early Childhood Care and Education; and a greater commitment to lifelong learning, which is an area that Ireland fares poorly at compared with our European peer countries.

Essential healthcare

Healthcare services are fundamental to human wellbeing and contribute to economic success in a range of ways, including improving labour market participation and productivity. Citizens of a developed Western country like Ireland should be assured of the required treatment and care in their times of illness or vulnerability. However while many aspects of the Irish healthcare system result in very positive outcomes for citizens, many others experience significant access issues, and Ireland’s long waiting lists and regular trolley crises are well publicised.

One of the most obvious concerns about the Irish Healthcare system is to do with access. Ireland’s health system ranked 21st out of 35 countries in a 2016 study by Health Consumer Powerhouse, but on the issue of accessibility, Ireland ranked among the three worst countries. The report noted that even if the (then) Irish waiting-list target of 18 months were reached, it would still be the worst waiting time situation in Europe.

If healthcare in Ireland is to meet the required standard in the years ahead, the next Programme for Government should shift to a model that would:

  • Prioritise quality primary and social care services, increasing the availability of each.
  • Ensure medical card-coverage for all people who are vulnerable.
  • Create a statutory entitlement to a Home Care Package.
  • Create additional respite care and long-stay care facilities for older people and people with disabilities, and provide capital investment to build additional community nursing facilities.
  • Institute long-term planning and investment in the sector, acknowledging the impending demographic changes in Ireland, to ensure that we can cope with these changes.

Cultural Respect

Every individual is entitled to have their culture respected in the country in which they live, so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights and culture of others. This will often involve adapting public services to make them suitable for the needs of cultural or ethnic minorities. The next Programme for Government should reflect this.

Cultural respect also extends to the words we use when talking about people different to ourselves. Over the last decade, we have seen in several countries how a political focus on immigration, demonising ‘outsiders’ and ethnic minorities, and increasingly insular, inward-looking attitudes has led to the election of political leaders who have then used their platform to implement regressive legislation and policies that have restricted human rights, increased inequality, targeted the vulnerable, and eroded the services upon which most ordinary people rely to underpin their standard of living. The wellbeing of broader society is often ignored, and reductions in living standards are blamed on ‘others’. Ireland has been largely immune from these trends, but there’s no guarantee that this will remain the case.

It is also important that all people and all nations recognise their duty to uphold the rights of others. As an example, the current refugee crisis, precipitated by the chaos in the Middle East, has created a situation of immense suffering for millions of people. Along with our European counterparts, Ireland has a part to play in assisting these refugees. There can be economic and social benefits to this too; data shows that immigrants are net contributors to the state (as they are typically young, healthy and already educated).

Real Participation

Everyone should have the right to participate in shaping the society in which they live. This involves more than casting votes in elections and referenda. Ireland needs real, regular and structured deliberative democracy to ensure that all interest groups and all sectors of society can contribute to the discussion and the decision-making on the kind of society Ireland wishes to build. These discussions must be founded upon reasoned, evidence-based and enlightened debate, and decisions taken must be justified and acceptable to the public. A deliberative decision-making process is one where all stakeholders are involved, but the power differentials are removed. In such a process, stakeholders are involved in the framing, implementation, and evaluation of policies and measures that impact on them.

Public Participation Networks (PPNs) provide an opportunity for real engagement between local people and local authorities across the country. There is now a PPN operational in each of the 31 Local Authority areas in Ireland, providing regular fora for ordinary citizens and community groups to influence policy in their local area. More than 15,000 local organisations, including community/voluntary bodies, those focusing on social inclusion, and environmental organisations, are currently registered with these PPNs and the number is rising each year.

Ireland would greatly benefit from such regular fora at a national level too. Social dialogue involving all sectors of society is hugely beneficial. It helps highlight issues at an early stage which would allow them to be addressed promptly. More importantly, it ensures that the various sectors of society are involved in developing mutually acceptable solutions to problems that emerge which in turn would be most likely to ensure their support for such solutions when implemented by Government. The next Programme for Government should include a provision for the re-implementation of a new form of social dialogue.

The National Economic Dialogue (NED) is an example of such dialogue, or at least it is an example of the potential for such dialogue. Government held the first NED in July 2015 and has reprised this format each year since. Social Justice Ireland welcomes this deliberative approach to policymaking but believes Government should make the following two changes:

  1. It should convene such a forum more regularly than once a year, and
  2. It should broaden its deliberations beyond the economy.

A wide range of areas need to be addressed simultaneously if the economy and society are to thrive. The environment is a perfect example of an issue that would benefit from such a forum being convened three or four times annually. Such social dialogue, in various forms, is common across Europe’s most successful economies. Government will make the final decisions on all policy issues; that has always been the case. But it is important that any new policymaking approach adopted by Government is integrated and inclusive and engages all sectors of society.