Address by Michelle Bachelet at the 13 June 2011 Session of the ILO Social Protection Committee

Date: Monday, June 13, 2011

Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at the conclusion of the session of the ILO Social Protection Committee held on 13 June 2011 at the Palais des Nations, Geneva. Ms. Bachelet expressed her satisfaction with the possible inclusion in the conclusions of a recommendation on social protection floors.

[Check against delivery.]

Mr. Chairman, Ambassador of Luxembourg, Mr. Jean Feyder, may I first of all take this opportunity to congratulate you on the successful organization of these intensive and remarkable discussions.


You are about to take a major step in shaping the international agenda. The UN system, the G20, the multilateral system in general, and many countries around the world, are watching you closely and looking forward to hearing your conclusions. Certainly, as chair of the Social Protection Floor Advisory Group, I am very pleased to hear from the officers that your conclusions might include a call for a recommendation on social protection floors to complement existing standards.

But today, to mark the adoption of the conclusions of this important committee, I would like to take out my different international hats and speak to you as a former head of State, as President of Chile in the period 2006 to 2010.

Let me switch to Spanish then.

[The following portion is a translation from the Spanish original.]
Social protection has always been the centrepiece of my concerns in view of its potential for transforming for the better the lives of millions of individuals who are marginalized and living below the poverty line, thereby empowering them to participate in building societies that are more stable, peaceful and economically prosperous.

In my professional experience as a doctor, Health Minister and President I can confirm what many Nobel laureates have said:

  • That in the long term the most profitable and sustainable investment is investment in individuals, health, education, working conditions and social protection;
  • That increases in productivity, one of the keys to economic development, are directly linked to ensuring that workers have access to suitable systems of social protection that serve not only to protect but also to empower workers to overcome barriers, adapting to new circumstances and taking advantage of opportunities.

In Chile one of the most important objectives of my government has been to continue and extend the process of reforms of social protection, giving impetus to changes that have been delayed for many years, especially in the sphere of pensions and the protection of boys and girls.

I chose social protection, not only because a strong demand for such reforms existed but also because I firmly believe that improving social protection in countries should have a leading role in addressing current needs for social cohesion, political stability and inclusive growth — aspirations shared by virtually all societies.

To talk with you today at the ILO is of special importance because it was this very organization that at the beginning of the last decade established a clear and ambitious agenda. It was precisely 10 years ago that the International Labour Conference debated the issue of social security and identified insufficient social safety nets as the most important action priority.

The guidelines that originated in the debates at the 2001 International Labour Conference and that were incorporated in the recommendation that relates to social security had a significant influence on the discussions that we had in Chile, particularly with respect to the measures designed to address deficiencies in the social protection system.

When I took office in 2006, in spite of the important progress made by the previous administrations, the problems facing the social protection system were clear: four out of ten workers were making no contributions to social security; at least three out of every ten adults had no pension; and among those who did have pensions, serious gender inequity arose as a result of the nature of the design of the financing and the terms of access to benefits; in light of its high degree of vulnerability, early childhood in particular suffered from inadequate social protection.

A very important reform of pensions took place, probably the most important social reform for 25 years. A system of solidarity-based pensions was established in order to achieve substantial increases in system coverage, including an additional public supplement to complement the contribution-based pensions of low-income workers.

In addition, mechanisms were introduced to offset the gender inequalities produced by the privately administered system — including the child allowance to compensate women for the effort involved in motherhood and the fact that women are traditionally penalized for being mothers on the labour market.

Finally, action was taken to implement a set of policies to support mothers, pregnant women and early childhood.

In order to improve the coordination of the various components of the system, the “Protects Network was created, which consists in the formation of numerous programmes and public guarantees of entrance and access to essential services in one particular platform.

It is interesting to highlight the fact that the reform of pensions that we implemented in 2008 addressed three of the most important demands expressed by the 2001 International Labour Conference; improve coverage in access to benefits, reduce gender inequalities, and increase the solidarity of the system.

These reforms required an enormous political will and were possible because we had a favourable fiscal situation.

They represented paradigm shifts in social policy that are in line with the discussions on the social protection floor carried out in this committee in recent days. Allow me to emphasize some fundamental elements of these changes.

First, we moved away from social policies predicated on the satisfaction of basic necessities to embrace social policies with a focus on guaranteed rights. This is the most decisive change. Among other measures, this extended access to early childhood education and explicit guarantees in health. The automatic nature of family subsidies was established, The Solidarity-Based Basic Pension was introduced, as was a bonus for each live birth as part of the social security reform.

Second, we moved away from the focus on poverty to the progressive extension of benefits towards broader segments of society. Progressively the free benefits were extended from the poorest segments to other non-poor groups of society. In 2010, practically all the benefits had a free floor for 60 percent of the lower-income population, with implications for the extension of these policies to various strata of the middle-income groups.

Third, from the selective special programmes we decided to embrace the primacy of universal policies. The selective access to special programmes in the early 1990s was gradually universalized, especially in education and health, as were monetary transfers on permanent allowances associated with these benefits.

Fourth, from an emphasis on contribution-based policies we moved to strengthen solidarity-based policies. The strengthening of the solidarity-based pillar of social security reform constitutes not only a quantitative, but also a qualitative change in coverage. A similar phenomenon is observed with the extension of free preschool education, free care for the elderly in the public health system, among others.

The consolidation of these social programmes served as a buffer to cushion the shock of the economic crisis of 2008-2009, protecting the most vulnerable, serving as a macroeconomic stabilizer and empowering the workers to take advantage of opportunities that have arisen with the economic recovery.

In conclusion, at the beginning of the last decade, the international call to increase coverage, spearheaded by the ILO, permeated the national debate in Chile as the country sought to establish new priorities. With the aim of broadening horizontal coverage of social protection, certain basic standards for the guarantees of economic security and access to services such as greater health, education and care for early childhood and the elderly were established.

The reforms built a meaningful social protection floor, combining income security for for the elderly, as the foundation of the contribution-based component of social security, with other guarantees of access to essential services. A decade later, we are here again discussing how the proposals of the 2001 International Labour Conference were actually manifested in innovative policies for the extension of coverage.

I am sure that each one of you also has extraordinary stories to share on this subject. In the Consultative Group on the Social Protection Floor, we had the opportunity to review, with the support of the ILO and the UNDP, 18 successful experiments in regard to broadening coverage in 15 countries. This is a quiet revolution that is promoting fundamental political and socioeconomic change around the world.

These experiences are inextricably linked with the content of the debates that you have been conducting in the matter of social security in the sessions of this Conference. The proposal of the U.N. System, and of the Global Jobs Pact, to develop a Social Protection Floor is unquestionably important and timely.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

[The rest of the speech was in English.]
Let me turn to English to conclude.

I can say, from my own experience as head of State, that the extension of social protection, drawing on social protection floors, universalizing social rights and access to basic services, is not a utopia.

It is necessary, possible and effective. In the beginning of the decade we were convinced that the population deserved a more inclusive economic growth path and that we could do it. Even with major political resistance in the beginning of the process, we were able to engage in social dialogue and reach consensus to rebuild a public component in the social security system, increase coverage and solidarity.

I am very pleased to see that social dialogue is also working here again, not only to reiterate the 2001 call for expanding social protection, but also to consider practical approaches and tools, such as the social protection floor, for doing so. Your collective conclusions will certainly inspire many countries to keep advancing towards fairer, more inclusive and sustainable development paths.

Congratulations! ¡Muchas gracias!