“Everyone, as a member of society, . . . is entitled to realization. . . of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality”
- “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
- Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
- Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
- Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
(Articles 22 and 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Economic justice is the component of social justice that promotes the existence of opportunities for meaningful work and employment opportunities and the dispensation of fair rewards for the productive activities of individuals (UN, 2006). Economic justice is accomplished when everyone has access to the means that create opportunities to live a dignified, productive and creative life.
The concept of economic justice has acquired increased significance given the trends of income and wealth inequality observed in the last few decades. According to the United Nation’s World Social Report 2020, despite the unprecedented global economic growth over the last decades, there is a growing consensus that this growth has been accompanied by increasing disparities in the distribution of income and assets, unequal access to health and education, and declining levels in the participation of citizens in public affairs.
In Australia, sustained economic growth has delivered significantly improved living standards for the average Australian in every income decile, but inequality has also slightly risen (Productivity Commission, 2018). In our country, someone in the highest 20% of the income scale lives in a household with almost six times as much income as someone in the lowest 20% of the income scale. Furthermore, people in the highest 20% of the wealth scale hold nearly two thirds of all wealth (64%), while those in the lowest 60% hold less than a fifth of wealth (17%) (ACOSS, 2020).
Prosperity and justice go hand-in-hand. The idea that the economy will be more successful if it is fairer is at the core of economic justice. In its broadest sense, economic justice represents just and fair allocation of resources within the economy. This can be achieved through four main principles: access, equity, participation and human rights.
Access to resources
Economic justice is hampered by the concentration of wealth and power. A healthy society must ensure that services and resources are offered equally. This includes access to education, healthcare, shelter and food. Unfortunately, equal access to opportunities is not always guaranteed and some members of society have limited access often based on their socioeconomic status, race, gender, or education, amongst other factors. Education, for example, is associated with better opportunities in the future. Similarly, people with higher socioeconomic status will more likely obtain higher-paying jobs in comparison to those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Equity is based on the principle that we all have the same inherent worth. Quite often, the effort and resources required for two different people to achieve the same goal can vary widely. Similarly, some people face barriers that others do not. For example, obtaining a college degree might look very different for an individual coming from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background and require more community support and resources in comparison to more privileged peers. To achieve economic justice and equal opportunities for everyone, it is crucial that the society provides equitable resources based on the specific needs of individuals.
Participation is a fundamental human right set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reiterated in many other conventions and declarations. A healthy society must ensure that everyone is able to raise their concerns and take part in the decisions that affect them. Active participation is often a catalyst to strengthen political will around matters that affect diverse groups, particularly those who are disadvantaged.
Human rights are inherent to all members of a society regardless of any individual characteristic. Human rights, and social and economic justice are intertwined. Human rights are manifest in laws that guarantee freedom of speech, voting rights, criminal justice protections, and the protection of everyone’s civil, political, economic, and social rights.
Why do social and economic justice matter?
Despite the general recognition that social and economic justice are good for everyone,
as a society, we must recognise that there is no one-size fits all solution to achieve social and economic justice as a single matter. Social and economic justice require strong and coherent policies in a wide range of areas. Policy development and possible solutions to achieve social and economic justice can also represent diverging views as to what is ‘the best approach’ to increase equality, fairness and the optimal allocation of resources.
Governments have the capacity and obligation to work to improve social equity and justice. Developing social policy is therefore a means for a government to create a more balanced structure of social and economic justice in their communities. These efforts must be supplemented by those of social organisations, including the civil society, think tanks and the non-for-profit sector.
There is no finish line to cross. Social and economic justice mean fairness across generations. Progress may be slow, but the effort can be translated into reduced inequality, improved lives, and a society where every person meets their basic needs, everyone is welcomed, and everyone can thrive and hope for a better future.
Economic justice champion story
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968) is remembered foremost as a civil rights leader and activist. Dr. King was a champion not just for civil rights but also for political, social and economic justice for poor and working families. For Dr. King, civil rights and economic justice were deeply connected. In 1958, he wrote “that the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice”.
In 1968, Dr. King supported and called for legislation that would provide citizens with the right to a job, adequate education and decent housing, among others. Dr. King’s civil rights group, the Southern Leadership Conference, was particularly concerned with the ways in which economic inequality perpetuates racial and social inequality. He also supported and urged labour unions to embrace the civil right movement.
Dr. King also believed that every person was entitled to a liveable income, whether they worked or not. In his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, he called for unconditional cash transfers for every citizen, pegged to the median income of society and not at the lowest level of income.
Most notably, Dr. King tirelessly advocated for the right of every employable citizen to have a decent job. Before his death, Dr. King wrote: “I hope that a specific number of jobs is set forth, that a program will emerge to abolish unemployment, and that there will be another program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level”.
Dr. King manifested a clear goal of eradicating poverty and creating equal opportunities for all, and he believed that, with the right support, poor people and workers could lift themselves up, fulfil their dreams and truly change the world.
Alejandro Navarrete is a Policy and Advocacy Advisor for The Salvation Army Australia
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Salvation Army
 United Nations, Social Justice in an Open World (2006)
 Australian Government, Productivity Commission, Rising inequality? A stocktake of evidence (2018)
 Australian Council of Social Services, Inequality in Australia (2020)