JFJ/Observer Column Article – Economic and social rights a requirement for real growth

AS Jamaica approaches the tabling of its 2014-2015 budget, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) focuses on economic and social rights (ESRs). ESRs are a crucial part of the fundamental human rights which are often overlooked. These rights deal with people’s entitlement to an agreed living standard including rights to prescribed quality in employment, education, health care, social security, housing, food, water, clothing and safe environmental conditions. ESRs also deal with people’s entitlement to access resources such as land, labour and money, which are important factors in producing goods and services for sale.

International law allows for the fact that making ESRs a reality can only be achieved progressively over time due to the varying resources of different countries. However, the government’s duty to take steps in fulfilling ESRs and to ensure freedom from discrimination is immediate. Lack of resources is no excuse. Commitments to social and economic justice must be guaranteed by the state, requiring governments not to discriminate in their laws, policies or programmes and prioritising the most vulnerable when allocating resources.

Education and employment are important factors in determining social and economic conditions. In a country where only 17 per cent of the labour force has basic schooling, there is little prospect for development of human capital. Young people 20-24 are a vulnerable cohort currently experiencing over 40 per cent unemployment. Despite state efforts, challenges remain at the secondary level where enrolment in high schools fall as students advance (12-14»128,251; 15-16 » 84,847; 17-19 » 32,697) indicating a problem with completion rate.

JFJ’s work in communities has repeatedly highlighted numerous challenges in accessing education. The issues discovered included: children in rural areas having difficulty in getting to school because of the distance; high transportation costs; poor road conditions; and children being required to attend ill-equipped or understaffed schools which too often produce young people who were either semi-literate or without a skill. JFJ also encountered adults from these communities who were having difficulties in accessing adult literacy classes.

A quality education that enhances critical thinking and problem solving skills, producing rational thinkers is seen as the best long-term weapon in the fight against a range of social problems, such as risky sexual behaviours, poor parenting, unemployment, violence and crime. An improved education system requires providing adequate and competent teachers, lowering teacher to pupil ratios, implementing stronger accountability mechanisms in the education system, opening additional teaching centres for Jamaicans in the most remote areas and upgrading teaching equipment. Improved vocational training opportunities are required islandwide, as well as access to remedial education for those who have already left school semi-literate or with no skill.

Fulfilment of ESRs is a critical step in moulding an empowered citizenry. The failure of successive administrations to create an education system that is easily accessible and of sufficient quality is a breach of fundamental rights and an issue for all Jamaicans. Jamaica’s economic growth is dependent on a functioning education system.