Fewer than half the population of Asia and the Pacific have access to any social protection benefits, and public spending on social protection in the region is significantly below the global average, a new report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has found.
Spending on social protection in the region has averaged 7.5% of GDP over the past two years, with half of countries spending 2.6% or less. This is significantly below the global average of 12.9%.
The World Social Protection Report 2020–22 says that regional companion report for Asia and the Pacific finds that only 44.1% of the region's population have access to at least one social protection benefit.
Looking at some specific benefits; only 45.9% of new mothers received paid maternity leave and only 14% of unemployed workers received unemployment benefits.
Contributory social protection schemes are typically limited to those working in the formal sector, while non‑contributory schemes usually target a small group of the poorest in a society.
This means that a large and important group of workers is left unprotected. This so-called "missing middle" includes many women, migrant workers, the self-employed, workers in micro and small enterprises, domestic workers, home-based workers and contributing family workers.
As well as these significant coverage gaps, a second problem is that what coverage there is often too low to provide adequate protection, because of the relatively low level of funding and investment in social protection schemes.
"This region stands at a crossroads. It faces challenges in terms of adequacy of benefits and system sustainability coupled with low public expenditure and the persistence of non-standard forms of work," said Panudda Boonpala, deputy regional director of the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
"The Covid-19 crisis has made clear that, for most countries in the region, an urgent paradigm shift is required. The need for social protection has never been so evident".
"Social protection in the region needs to respond not only to the Covid-19 pandemic, but to other major trends, including population ageing, migration, urbanisation, technological progress, disasters and climate change," said Nuno Meira Simoes da Cunha, senior technical specialist, Social Protection, ILO.
The report calls for countries in the region to choose between different development paths.
One is the "high-road'' approach, with a significant new role for social protection, aiming to be more inclusive and leaving no one behind, while supporting greater growth, driven by domestic demand, and contributing to further development of human capabilities.
The other option is to focus on fiscal consolidation and pursue a "low-road" approach that keeps countries trapped in a "low cost – low human development" growth pattern.