World Social Justice Day – who knew?

By Shami Chakrabarti

Today is UN World Social Justice Day. You forgot? Surely you couldn’t have missed all those adverts from online retail giants promising to give away billions so every child on the planet has access to food, shelter and laptops? What about the pledge from big pharma to wave all patents on Covid-19 vaccine, so as to speed up global production and universal distribution? Now you’re going to say you’ve forgotten to get anything in. No loaves and fishes? Not so much as a greetings card to mark such an important page in the calendar?

Sarcasm aside, you could well be forgiven for not knowing what February 20th is supposed to signify. Days aimed at the sharing of wealth are certainly less publicised than those devised for some to rake it in. So sometimes we have to dream without the aid of schmaltz and tat.

This year, the UN has themed the day around justice in the digital economy. And there is certainly a good deal of work to be done there, not least at the international level, given the new continent of the internet and the way that its conquerors are effectively colonising so much of the rest of our world.

While too many of us squabble over the flags and anthems of empires long fallen, the passwords to our smart phones, laptops and digital platforms are the real passports of this pandemic. Imagine trying to homeschool, home-work or just live without them right now and recognise one of the greatest divides between the haves and nots on the planet. A special place in dead zone hell might be reserved for those clever commentators who scoffed at Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledge of universal free broadband. But digital justice does not end with access.

We know that the tech giants harvest data, labour and money from people around the world without paying their fair share of reciprocal tax. It’s little wonder that so many of these billionaires seem preoccupied with space travel. They have so dominated the Earth that there can be little by way of amusing distraction left for them here.

But what if a global treaty held their tax, employment and data practices to account? Closer to home, what if our own government empowered and resourced regulators to march into the unsafe, inhuman warehouses where people are banned from decent breaks and joining unions? And it cannot be beyond the wit of the Treasury to design a tax that targets online retailers with UK purchasers and “fulfilment centres” regardless of where in the world they are incorporated.

Essential though internet, tax and employment justice are, this month I am thinking about something even more fundamental to our existence – food. The UN estimates that 821 million or one in nine people do not have enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.

Last spring and a few weeks into the first lockdown, the Food Foundation reported that 1.5 million people in Britain said that they hadn’t eaten for at least a whole day because of a lack of money and access to food. The year before that, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty Professor Philip Aston reported how a decade of ideological cuts had led to the “systematic immiseration” of large numbers of people in our nations. He suggested that some observers might conclude that the Department for Work and Pensions had been tasked with “designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th Century workhouse made infamous by Charles Dickens.” And this, in one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world.

Too many of our fellow citizens are having to choose between food and fuel or regularly skipping meals to be able to have enough to feed their kids. I will never forget how I felt when I first saw a padlock – not on a booze cabinet – but on a fridge unit holding small portions of meat and fish in a supermarket round the corner from my home in central London. It took some minutes for the penny to drop as to why this sight was so grotesque. Then my brain finally caught up with the sinking feeling in my gut. I’d sadly become all too used to seeing homeless people on the streets of my neighbourhood, far more than I ever remember seeing in my youth, even in the nineteen eighties. But a homeless person has little use for a raw fish fillet or chicken breast. The padlocks were to keep desperate local residents at bay.

So I’m giving up shoulder-shrugging this Lent and supporting Ian Byrne MP and his visionary campaign for a legally enforceable right to food for every human being in our nations. Some will scoff as always. But if ever there were an idea whose time has come – it must be this.

Sign the petition to make access to food a legal right.

Shami Chakrabarti is the former Shadow Attorney General, a human rights lawyer and Labour Peer.

Image: Official portrait of Baroness Chakrabarti, Source: https://api.parliament.uk/Live/photo/jjCKoH6R.jpeg?crop=MCU_3:4&quality=80&download=true, Author: Chris McAndrew,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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