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Social justice and a global social contract

What sort of inclusive or equitable society can be possible without a commitment to social justice?

The European elections are over, and nobody is in doubt that both Europe and the world remain in a state of flux, on tenterhooks at the sight of the fog of war. It is truly a fluid world of uncertainties.

Closer to home, we are often prone to think that Malta may be impermeable to the ills of the rest of the world; an illusion at best but, perhaps, one tied to a national principle of social protection that has contributed much to our young democracy’s health.

We may today speak of living in a vibrant economy, with social partners who have made pragmatism and social dialogue the key to well-reasoned industrial peace. Our imperfections are many, and, yet, our free, vocal activism for the common good is the mark of a healthy dialectic: from the environment to good governance, social policy and anti-corruption, our civic voices keep the debate alive and push leaders towards the right decisions, one hopes.

The General Workers’ Union is one of these participants. We have championed various measures to enhance the well-being of our citizens: an increase in the minimum wage for low-income earners; social protection and basic working conditions for platform workers; recruitment agency rules laying down fair practices that protect workers from exploitation; and equal-pay-for-work-of-equal-value for subcontractor employees.

All proud achievements for the union but these are no mere ‘trophies’. If there is one backbone to the healthy democracy that Malta is, it’s a national quest for equality and social justice that protects against the ravages of an unequal society.

Nationally, we can toast increased pensions and social benefits in the last decade, while the government’s subsidies on fuel, energy and basic food products have made essential utilities more affordable.

Clearly, what sort of inclusive or equitable society can be possible without such a commitment to social justice? This was, in fact, my message to the International Labour Organisation’s annual conference this year: the path forward for us is to renew our global social contract.

Yes: a global social contract, just like our own national social contract, grounded in principles of social justice and decent work for all.

2024 is a crucial year – we have witnessed a rightward drift in Europe in the MEP elections that might influence laws dear to us for social protection, as well as on climate change and the green transition; France is set for a tumultuous political period; and an American election will set the tone for, part of, the global agenda in the coming years.

Nobody can deny that we are at a very critical juncture– Josef Bugeja

Nobody can deny that we all are at a very critical juncture, where we face dangerous global challenges. We face climate change and economic inequality, technological disruptions and demographic shifts, war in Europe and genocide in the Middle East: how will we renew the global social contract to ensure our governance and social protection systems remain robust, equal and inclusive?

First, we must never lose track of the notion of the social contract. Historically, social contracts have evolved to meet the changing needs of our societies and communities. Today, they embody the mutual responsibilities that bind us together.

Secondly, we must recognise social justice as the pivot of this contract: the creation of a fair, inclusive society where everyone can enjoy a peaceful, dignified and fulfilling life.

Thirdly, as an expression of this belief in the social contract, we must strive for everlasting peace as we see regions torn apart by war and famine and the lives of millions ruined by conflicts.

So, we must face our future challenges with social justice at the top of our agendas. It means believing in a chance for everyone to advance economically and socially.

It means striving for an effective tripartite social dialogue, for social integration, freedom of expression, a just social transition, poverty alleviation, racial justice, LGBTIQ+ rights, disability rights, environmental justice and good governance.

And while economic sustainability is also crucial for businesses to thrive, it is equally important that they operate in a manner that is socially sustainable. This means adopting practices that support the well-being of workers, communities and the environment.

This is what creates resilient societies and democracies.

Josef Bugeja is Secretary-General of the General Workers’ Union.