The cluster of issues related broadly to demands for economic justice, including anti-austerity grievances, are the second most common reason why people around the world protest. Overall, 1484 protests in the period 2006–2020, or nearly 53% of total protests counted in the study, reflect people’s outrage at economic and social public policy failures and a perceived lack of broad-based development. Protestors have evinced strong demands for jobs and better living and working conditions, quality public services for all, tax and fiscal justice, equitable land and pension reforms, as well as affordable food, fuel and other goods (Fig. 6). Protests have accelerated because of the contraction of decent jobs as a result of the global crisis and the extension of austerity measures worldwide since 2010, affecting nearly four billion people—half of the world population—in 2017. Recently, the jobs crisis has been accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in more protests despite lockdowns. The majority of global protests for economic justice and against austerity have manifested people’s indignation at the gross inequalities between ordinary communities and rich individuals/corporations. The idea of the “1% versus the 99%,” which emerged a decade earlier during the United States protests over the 2008 financial and economic crisis, have quickly spread around the world, feeding earlier grievances against eliteswriting of the rules and manipulating public policies in their favor, while the majority of citizens continue to endure low living standards.
Table 5, Figs. 7 and 8 present key issues in the category of protests for economic justice and against austerity cuts.Footnote 5 In general, such protests are more prevalent in Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, and North America. Contrary to public perceptions, austerity measures are not limited to Europe: since 2010, many of the principal adjustment cuts/reforms have featured most prominently in developing countries (Ortiz & Cummins, 2019) and this is well reflected in our mapping of global protests.
The main reasons why people protest about economic justice, including anti-austerity demands, are:
4.1 Jobs, Higher Wages and Labor Conditions
This is the most prevalent cause of economic and social-justice-related protests, appearing in 517 protest events in all regions, or in 18.4% of the total number of protests in the world, and reflecting the major jobs crisis that occurred before, during, and after the world financial and economic crisis of 2008, as well as the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Protests demanding decent jobs occur virtually in all countries. Many national protests also have a specific focus on wages and better working conditions, as exemplified by the protests in Angola, Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Egypt, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Jordan, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sudan, Thailand, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
4.2 Reform of Public Services
Reform of public services is a causal factor in 17% of all protest events counted—a total of 478 protests refer to reforms of education, health, water, and public transport, among others. Citizens marched against full and partial privatization, rationalization of services, budget cuts, cost-recovery measures, and other reforms that were perceived as reducing the quality and quantity of public services. Protests existed before the 2008 global financial crisis (e.g., in Australia, Chile, Egypt, Malaysia, and South Africa) but spiraled after 2010 with the adoption of austerity measures not only in Europe (e.g. France, Greece, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom) but in a majority of developing countries (e.g., Argentina Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Sudan, Thailand and Turkey).
4.3 Corporate Influence/Deregulation/Privatization
Corporate influence, deregulation, and privatization are issues present in 15% of protests worldwide (418 events) in the period 2006–2020. Protestors opposed policies that put the private interests of corporations and financial and other elites ahead of the rest of the population. In some developing countries, decades-long pressure from IFIs like the IMF and the World Bank has resulted in deregulation and privatization in countries that are not able to deliver adequate services for their own people. For example, privatization was a key grievance in protests in Chile in the decade 2010–2020, as well as in Brazil, France, Greece, and Iceland. Protests against the privatization of electricity drew thousands into the streets in Australia in 2008 and in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. In 2013 in Delhi, India, 100,000 farmers and activists protested against land acquisition for private profit. In recent years, protestors have demanded the regulation of platform services (e.g., UBER, food delivery, etc.) in many countries, such as Colombia, Spain and the United States.
More than 12% of the world’s protests (347 protests) denounced inequalities in income, wealth and influence on policy-making and questioned democratic systems that were allowing rent-seeking by elites and corporations. The Occupy movement powerfully mobilized citizens with slogans such as “we are the 99%” and middle classes around the world demonstrated actively against government policy decisions that benefit the elites instead of the majority. In the Arab Spring, as well as in the more recent Latin American Spring, inequality ranked high amongst the grievances of demonstrators. People protested against inequality in countries like Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Egypt, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sudan, Thailand, Tunisia, the United Kingdom and the United States. More on inequality and protests can be found in Section 2 in Chapter 3.
4.5 Tax/Fiscal Justice
Tax/Fiscal justice claims are also found in 12% of events worldwide, specifically in 339 protests. Protests’ typical issues were focused on inadequate national taxation as well as a lack of international tax cooperation, both of which allow for limited wealth taxation and tax evasion that benefits the wealthy instead of the majority of citizens. Protests demanded: more income and wealth taxation (e.g., Argentina, Brazil, Kenya); that governments fight tax evasion and illicit financial flows (e.g. Czech Republic, Germany, Philippines, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States); lower taxes/VAT on basic products that people consume (e.g., Iran, Portugal, and Uganda); that governments stop transfers to the financial and corporate sectors (e.g., Indonesia, Malaysia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States); improvement in inter-regional transfers (e.g. Greece, Italy, and Mexico); and adequate taxation of extractive resources (e.g. Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tanzania). The strength of the citizens’ movements calling for governments to audit sovereign debts (e.g., Brazil, Ireland, Philippines, and Spain) and to repudiate nationalized private-sector debts must also be noted.
4.6 Low Living Standards
The issue of low living standards is raised in 10% of world protests (286 protests), and this is often linked to: protests against inequalities (e.g., Philippines, Tunisia, and the United States); demands for decent wages (e.g., Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines); demonstrations against austerity cuts (e.g., Bulgaria, Israel, Spain, United Kingdom); and protests against the rising prices of goods and services (e.g., Brazil, Burkina Faso, Haiti, India, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Occupied Palestinian Territory, and Romania). Low living standards are a grievance behind nearly all protests for social protection reforms, pension reforms (e.g., Egypt and Nicaragua) and the protests to demand higher social benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., Bulgaria, Chile, Lebanon, South Africa, and Spain).
4.7 Agrarian/Land Reform
Grievances/demands regarding agrarian or land reforms appear in 181 protest episodes (more than 6% of the world total) in the period 2006–2020. In most countries, protestors contested changes to land laws and other reforms resulting in the loss of livelihoods to farmers (e.g., Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Mozambique, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, and Sudan). Examples include: India, where landless farmers staged a 600-km march for land rights; China, where protesters demanded the end of land-grabbing and the protection of grasslands; and Sudan, where there have been violent police backlashes against protests that denounced land-grabbing—selling public land to foreign investors. In Colombia and Mexico, small farmers are protesting the withdrawal of agricultural subsidies and/or competition of agricultural imports because of free-trade agreements or conditions set for loans from the IFIs.
4.8 Fuel and Energy Prices
The removal or phasing out of fuel and energy subsidies—an element of fiscal austerity—and the resulting unaffordable energy prices have sparked 5% of protests in 136 countries (e.g., Algeria, Cameroon, Chile, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Niger, Peru, Sudan, and Uganda). While the removal of fuel subsidies can have positive environmental externalities when polluters are no longer subsidized,Footnote 6 a main problem is the inadequate compensation to the population. Energy and transport prices increase, resulting in higher prices for food and other basic needs of the population, normally living on low incomes in developing countries (Ortiz & Cummins, 2019). Often the IFIs recommend a small safety net targeted to the poorest—but this policy is insufficient, as it leaves the majority of the population worse off. Consider the cases of Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, and Ecuador. With the majority of Nigeria’s population living on less than 2 dollars per day, cheap petrol is viewed by many as the only tangible benefit they receive from the state, hence the massive protests since 2012 when Minister of Finance Okonjo Iweala removed a fuel subsidy that kept food and transportation costs low. In Kyrgyzstan in 2010, the price of heating rose by 400% and electricity by 170%: subsequent demonstrations ended in violent riots and the resignation of President Bakiyev. In Ecuador in 2019, after large riots, the government flew from the capital and had to stop a loan with the IMF that had proposed the cuts to energy subsidies and other reforms with negative social impacts.
4.9 Pension Reforms
Opposition to pension reforms is behind 3.5% of protests globally, with 97 events counted in the period 2006–2020. The reform of social security and pension systems for cost-saving purposes is a main austerity measure (e.g., raising contribution rates, increasing eligibility periods, prolonging the retirement age, and/or lowering benefits). These reforms have increased since 2010 in many European countries due to austerity pressures, resulting in widespread protests (e.g., France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom). A number of these protests were successful—in Latvia, Portugal and Romania, the national justice courts determined that the austerity adjustments were unlawful and pensioners were given back their earlier pensions. Developing countries have also experienced important protests against pension reforms, as the IFIs have generally proposed reforms more radical in nature, involving the privatization of pension systems despite the lack of evidence that private pension systems work better than public systems (e.g., Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine); in fact, a majority of countries have reversed pension privatization (ILO, 2017).
The right to an affordable decent home has been at the center of 85 protests around the world (in 3% of the protests studied), particularly after the housing bubble and the subsequent eviction of families unable to pay mortgages (e.g., Canada, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States). In Germany, protestors complained about rising prices resulting from the gentrification of city centers. Demands for public support for affordable housing have also profiled high in protests in Brazil, Chile, China, Philippines, and South Africa.
4.11 Food Prices
Since 2007–2008, as international food prices have spiked to historic highs, with local food prices at near record levels in many countries, food-prices-related protests have represented more than 1% of world protests (73 protests). Food protests have an inverse relation with income levels, as they are virtually absent from high-income countries and frequent in developing countries such as Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Niger, Peru, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan. Many of these food protests have ended in riots and revolts.