A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy – Prof. Sam Erugo, SAN
(A synopsis of the keynote paper presented at the Social Justice Special Lecture organized by Baze University Law Clinic)
I feel greatly honoured to be invited to address this noble gathering and specially thank the organisers, the coordinator, and members of the Baze University Social Justice and Public Interest Law Clinic, not just for this invitation, but also for the reason for gathering-taking action in response to the global call for social justice in the digital economy.
The theme ‘A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy’ is apt and current. It reverentially corresponds with the theme of the commemorative event of the 2021 World Day of Social Justice which held in New York, USA, on 23 February 2021. The theme has continued to resonate through the past year as envisaged by the call by the United Nations. It flows from the theme of the previous year on digital cooperation and will soon herald a new one. The commemorative event featured a pre-launch of the ILO’s report, World Employment and Social Outlook 2021: The role of digital labour platforms in transitioning the world of work. The 2021 ILO WESO report is relevant in understanding the ambit of the global call for social justice in the digital economy.
So, what is the import or implication of the Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy?
The expression ‘social justice’ is not new in our discourse, what is current, fresh, or new for discussion or argument is the call for this abstraction in relation to the digital economy. The reason is obvious! The world is dynamically and prodigiously going digital, and the economy too. But ‘social justice’ itself remains elusive in most societies of the world. The present is simply a call for extension of the social justice discourse or activism to the new dimensions implicated by the progressively expanding digitalization of the economy, with reference to promotion of development and human dignity, and essentially in the world of work and businesses. Accordingly, the related 2021 ILO WESO report seeks:
to enhance the understanding of how digital labour platforms are transforming the world of work and the implications of that transformation on businesses and workers. While digital labour platforms provide workers with income-generating opportunities and benefits from flexible work arrangements, including for women, persons with disabilities, young people, and migrant workers, they also present some challenges… For workers…,
their rights to fair working conditions, social protection and adequate standard of living, skills utilization, and the right to form or join trade unions … For traditional businesses, the challenges include unfair competition from platforms… the amount of funding required to continuously adapt to digital transformations, especially for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and inadequate availability of reliable digital infrastructure…(Emphasis supplied)
This statement captures the crux of the matter! Digitalization has brought human development but also implicated new social justice challenges.
Social justice, we know, is usually defined in terms of the fair or equal distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. The guiding principles are equity, access, diversity, participation, and human rights, the last being the essential element, while interrogating such issues as gender, age, and race. Common examples of social justice are found in utopian expectations of fairness in employment, healthcare, housing, etc. Social Justice is described as both a goal and a process, comprising ‘full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs’ and including ‘a vision of society that is equitable, and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.’
Way back in 2017, the World body had noted that:
“Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality, or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, or disability.”
For the United Nations, the pursuit of social justice for all is at the core of our global mission to promote development and human dignity. The adoption by the International Labour Organization of the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization is just one recent example of the UN System’s commitment to social justice. The Declaration focuses on guaranteeing fair outcomes for all, through employment, social protection, social dialogue, and fundamental principles and rights at work. (Emphasis mine)
Digital economy on the other hand, refers to ‘an economy that is based on digital computing technologies but is often perceived as conducting business through markets based on the internet and the World Wide Web.’ The ‘digital economy is the economic activity that results from billions of everyday online connections among people, businesses, devices, data, and processes. Concerns over developments digital economy heightened with the COVID-19 crisis. In the precise words of the New York call and launch of the 2021 ILO WESO Report in 2021:
“The digital economy is transforming the world of work. Over the past decade, expansion in broadband connectivity, cloud computing, and data have led to the proliferation of digital platforms, which have penetrated several sectors of the economy and societies. Since early 2020, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to remote working arrangements and …, further reinforcing the growth and impact of the digital economy. The crisis has also laid bare and exacerbated the growing digital divide within… particularly in terms of the availability, affordability and use of information ICTs and access to the internet, deepening existing inequalities”.
In the light of the foregoing, the call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy is:
- An affirmation of the role of social justice in promoting global development and human dignity to essentially guarantee fair outcomes for all, through employment, social protection, social dialogue, and fundamental principles and rights at work.
- A recognition of the urgency in addressing new social justice challenges posed by increasing digitalization, especially in digital labour platforms, and particularly ‘the regularity of work and income, their rights to fair working conditions, social protection and adequate standard of living, skills utilization and the right to form or join trade unions.’
- A recognition of the growing digital divide in terms of the availability, affordability and use of information ICTs and access to the internet, and the consequent deepening existing inequalities. The negative impact on traditional businesses and small-scale business enterprises must be noted.
- A call for action.
- in statutory and regulatory responses – to digitalization generally.
- The expanded repertoire of Social Justice Education and Public Interest Law issues: For law students inspired/interested in how to use the law a tool for justice/social justice, or those who wish to put their legal training to use in the public interest, this is a call to duty. My work on Public Interest Lawyering describes the practice, and how quickly such lawyers can become popular ethically fighting the just cause.
- Social justice in the terms defined can only be achieved through institutions and services consciously working to ensure the underlying principles are enthroned-in the present call- in the Digital Economy! Baze University Social Justice and Public Interest Law Clinic is already involved.
Congratulations for acting! And thank you.
Prof. Sam Erugo, SAN
 The General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 20 February as World Day of Social Justice in 2007
 New York launch of the ‘2021 ILO WESO Report’:
https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/international-days/world-day-of-social-justice/2021-2.html. Last accessed 7 February 2022.
 Lee Anne Bell: https://iss.wisc.edu/social-justice-learning-with-iss/#:~:text=The%20goal%20of%20social%20justice, Last accessed 7 February 2022
 https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/international-days/world-day-of-social-justice/world-day-of-social-justice-2017.html#: Last accessed 7 February 2022. See also https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/international-days/world-day-of-social-justice/2021-2.html. Last accessed 7 February 2022
 Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization: https://www.ilo.org/global/meetings-and-events/campaigns/voices-on-social-justice/WCMS_099766/lang–en/index.html, Last accessed 7 February 2022
 Digital economy: www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Last accessed 7 February 2022
 What is digital economy? https://www2.deloitte.com, Last accessed 7 February 2022
 https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/international-days/world-day-of-social-justice/2021-2.html, Last accessed 7 February 2022