AS we spent Monday in reflection on the anniversary of Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston, praying for the souls of the 44 Fijians who lost their lives and their families and the many people still struggling to recover from the devastation of Winston, the rest of the world was commemorating World Day of Social Justice.

Day for social justice

World Social Justice Day was established a decade ago and has been a day to support efforts of the international community eradicate poverty, promo­tion of full employment and decent work, gender equity and access to social wellbeing and justice for all.

The theme for World Social Justice Day 2017 was “Preventing conflict and sustaining peace through decent work”.

The statement for 2017 World Social Justice Day was written by Alfred de Zayas, an independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, and Idriss Jazairy, a special rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights

They pointed out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out that every human being has the right to a standard of living that ensures adequate health and wellbeing for individuals and their families, including access to food, clothing, housing, health care and social services, also makes clear that all people are entitled to a social and international order in which their rights and freedoms can be fully realised.

They wrote: “In the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, countries agreed to move individually and through international assistance and co-operation towards realising these rights.

“The promotion of social justice has gone hand in hand with advances in human rights awareness, particularly with regard to the duties of States towards citizens. But much remains to be done to translate this awareness into reality.”

Forms of social justice

Michelle Maiese, of the Beyond Intractability Project of the Conflict Information Consortium at the University of Colorado, explains that injustice comes in various forms, wherever the norms of distributive justice, procedural justice, or human rights are violated.

“Some actions, such as theft and murder, are commonly recognised as unjust by governments and prohibited by domestic law. However, there are also systemic forms of injustice that may persist in a society. These traditions and structures give rise to profound injustices that can be difficult to recognise. In some cases, these unfair conditions are imposed by the ruling party itself, whether it is an authoritarian government or an outside aggressor. Those in power sometimes use the State’s legal and political systems to violate the political, economic, and social rights of subordinate groups.”

Enshrined in the foundations of the original building in Geneva, which housed the International Labour Organisation are the words: “Si vis pacem, cole justitiam — If you desire peace, cultivate justice.”

In 1970 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Norman Ernest Borlaug, an American biologist and humanitarian who led initiatives worldwide that contributed to the extensive increases in agricultural production termed the Green Revolution.

Food — a moral right

In his lecture at the Nobel Institute, Borlaug addressed the ILO “motto” thus: “Almost certainly, however, the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world. Yet today 50 per cent of the world’s population goes hungry.

“Without food, man can live at most but a few weeks; without it, all other components of social justice are meaningless. Therefore I feel that the aforementioned guiding principle must be modified to read: If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.”

Local scenario

According to the Asian Development Bank, in Fiji, 31 per cent of the population live below the national poverty line.

The minimum wage for unskilled labour in Fiji is $2.32 per hour, or $92.60 per week.

In 2016, analysis by local trade unions showed that at this wage, a worker is unable to meet the costs of feeding a family of four basic subsistence rations. A basic shopping list prepared by the FTUC showed the family of a minimum wage worker living on rice, flour, dhal, and very limited protein; a few tins of tuna or chicken. They estimate that a family with two minimum wage earners has to spend over 60 per cent of their income on food.

With the continuing extreme weather patterns affected by climate change many workers, already struggling to meet the basic costs of food, have had to cut out a lot of fresh food and vegetables — replacing them with rice and other staples. While workers are able to meet their basic calorie needs each day, they are unable to afford the food that will provide them with the sufficient nutrients, despite working at least a 40-hour week.

In light of the 2017 theme for World Social Justice Day being “Preventing conflict and sustaining peace through decent work,” it is important to recognise that decent work should result in decent pay.

In contrast with the minimum wage is the living wage which considers the wage employees and their families need to live.

Living wage

Studies have shown that employers who voluntarily implemented a living wage policy believe that it had enhanced the quality of the work of their staff. Two thirds of employers reported a significant impact on recruitment and retention within their organisation, while absenteeism had fallen by 25 per cent on average. Seventy per cent of employers felt that the living wage had increased consumer awareness of their organisation’s commitment to be an ethical employer.

An independent study found 75 per cent of employees reported increases in job quality as a result of receiving the living wage. Fifty per cent of employees felt the living wage had made them more willing to implement changes in their working practices, enabled them to require fewer concessions to effect change and made them more likely to adopt changes more quickly.

With resistance from the State to increase the minimum wage to the $4 campaigned by local unions, are there employers willing to offer a living wage? Or does profit outweigh decency?

According to Venerable Khy Sovannratanak, a Buddhist teacher, social justice is a subject widely talked about and very much needed but yet so elusive.

“Most people want to have justice done to them. Unfortunately they hardly stop and ponder for a while if what they are doing is justice to other people. This is, in accordance with Buddhist teaching, is due to their selfishness and delusion.

“What humanity needs today is not hatred or anger, but loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, so that every living being in the world can live happily and harmoniously fully enjoying their rights, social justice and human dignity.”

Sh. Abdool Rahman Khan, writing on labour rights in Islam for the ICNA Council for Social Justice, states that: “Long before trade unions or labour unions were even dreamed to be in existence, Islam made a clear path forward of what workers’ rights are and how they are to be fulfilled and protected. Notably, by fulfilling these rights, one serves the Creator because these rights are given to us by the Creator himself and explained to us by his final messenger Muhammad. We see our rights through the guidance God Almighty.”

“The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: Your employees are your brothers upon whom Allah has given you authority, so if a Muslim has another person under his control, he/she should feed them with the like of what one eats and clothe them with the like of what one wears and you should not overburden them with what they cannot bear and if you do so, help them in their jobs.”

Christian context

In the Christian context, Matthew 20 records a story of Jesus about a landowner who hired workers for his vineyard.

In the story, five groups of labourers are hired to work in the vineyard. The first is hired early in the morning, the second in mid-morning, the third and fourth at noon and mid-afternoon respectively and the final group of labourers are hired in the late-afternoon.

Only the first group hired is contracted for a set wage — the others are simply promised that they will be paid “whatever is right”. At the end of the day comes the surprising rub; each group of labourers is paid the same amount — regardless of how long they had worked.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard shows us another way; the way of generosity, the way of giving to people according to their need, the way of providing meaningful and valued opportunities in the labour market even for those who were passed over at first.

It may challenge us to think about how we value labour in our society. Could we adopt a similarly gratuitous generosity in our wage structures? Perhaps not, we might answer, but let’s begin by at least speaking up for those who are so often abandoned in the marketplace, and who do not have what they need.

“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity.”

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. This article was published on the Fiji Times Online on February 22, 2017 . To view this, Click here!!