Innovating to extend coverage to difficult-to-cover groups: good practices from the Americas


Innovating to extend coverage to difficult-to-cover groups: good practices from the Americas

Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security. However, the realization of the human right to social security remains a declaration of intent rather than an enforceable right for a significant share of the global population.

According to estimates of the International Labour Organization (ILO), only 29 per cent of the global population is covered by comprehensive social security systems that include the full range of benefits, from child and family benefits to old-age pensions. While 71 per cent – equivalent to 5.2 billion people – are not, or are only partially, protected (ILO, 2017).

Although global estimates provide a perspective of the coverage gap's magnitude, there are substantial disparities. For example, ILO data shows that while almost 90 per cent of the population aged 65 or older in upper-middle-income countries receive an old-age pension, the effective coverage of old-age benefits is close to 15 per cent in low-income countries (Durán-Valverde, F. et al., 2019).

In line with the Sustainable Development Goals, the extension of social protection through a nationally appropriate combination of contributory and non-contributory schemes is therefore a priority. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has once again highlighted the key role of social protection for social and economic resilience and has made reaching the global goal of Universal Social Protection even more urgent.

The role of contributory schemes in this process is essential and enhances the financial sustainability, adequacy and public support of social protection coverage. While contributory schemes in most countries cover workers in more formal and stable employment relationships, considerable differences can be observed between countries in terms of their success in reaching out to difficult-to-cover groups.

Based on recent good practices submitted as part of the ISSA Good Practice Award for the Americas competition 2020, this article focusses on innovative strategies of social security institutions in the Americas to extend social security coverage to the self-employed, domestic workers and workers in the so-called creative economy.

These good practices demonstrate that contributory schemes can effectively cover workers in these sectors. However, they also point to the need for medium- and long-term strategies to develop appropriate operational capacities as well as for adaptations to existing schemes that take into account the specific characteristics of different groups.

Extending contributory schemes to difficult-to-cover groups

The coverage of often-excluded groups, such as informal workers and those in non-standard forms of employment, by contributory schemes is a key priority for social security systems in many lower-middle-income and low-income countries. In this regard, the challenge of extending coverage of contributory arrangements to informal workers is compounded by the magnitude of informal employment, which comprises 2 billion of the world's employed population aged 15 and over (ILO, 2018).

To illustrate this reality, Table A presents the legal coverage of self-employed persons, domestic workers, and artists by contributory schemes providing old age, disability, and survivor's benefits in the Americas region.

Table A. Legal coverage of selected categories of workers in the Americas (old-age, disability and survivors’ benefits)
Country Status of legal coverage
  Domestic workers Independent artists * Self-employed
Antigua and Barbuda ... Yes Yes
Argentina Yes
(also through special schemes)
(2015: actors & certain performers)
(also through special schemes)
Bahamas ... Yes Yes
Barbados ... Yes Yes
Belize ... Yes Yes
Bolivia Yes Voluntary coverage Voluntary coverage
Brazil Yes Yes Yes
Canada Yes Yes Yes
Chile Yes Yes Yes
Colombia Yes Voluntary coverage
(2013: through a complementary scheme)
(also through special schemes)
Costa Rica Yes Yes Yes
Cuba Yes Yes
(through special schemes)
(through  special schemes)
Dominica ... Yes Yes
Dominican Republic ... No No
Ecuador Yes Voluntary coverage
(2016: artists & cultural managers)
Voluntary coverage
El Salvador Voluntary coverage Voluntary coverage Voluntary coverage
Grenada ... Yes
(depending on earnings)
(depending on earnings)
Guatemala Voluntary coverage No No
Guyana ... Yes
(depending on earnings)
(depending on earnings)
Haiti ... No No
Honduras Voluntary coverage Voluntary coverage Voluntary coverage
Jamaica ... Yes Yes
Mexico Yes Yes
(voluntary for certain categories)
(voluntary for certain categories)
Nicaragua Yes Voluntary coverage Voluntary coverage
Panama Yes Yes Yes
Paraguay Yes Voluntary coverage Voluntary coverage
Peru Yes Yes
(2003: artists and performers)
Voluntary coverage
Saint Kitts & Nevis ... Yes Yes
Saint Lucia ... Yes Yes
St. Vincent & Grenadines ... Yes Yes
Suriname ... Yes Yes
Trinidad and Tobago Yes No Yes
United States Yes Yes Yes
Uruguay Yes Yes
(2008: special mechanism)
(also through special schemes)
Venezuela Yes Voluntary coverage Yes
Source: ISSA, country profiles, the Americas 2019 edition.
* Unless stated otherwise, it is understood that independent artists are covered under the same conditions as any other self-employed person.
… No information available.

Due to their work's characteristics, domestic workers are considered a difficult-to-cover group as they might fall out of the scope of application of labour legislation and, therefore, might be excluded from participating in contributory schemes. The ILO estimates that out of the 67 million domestic workers worldwide, 60 million do not have access to social security (ILO, 2016).

Expanding the legal coverage of social security schemes to domestic workers serves the double purpose of broadening the scope of protection to previously excluded groups while increasing women's access to social security, as women are significantly overrepresented in this sector.

Another category that tends to be excluded from contributory schemes comprises independent artists and workers in the art professions. The low levels of coverage among these workers can be explained by their employment conditions, characterized by a high prevalence of short-term and casual work (Behrendt and Nguyen, 2018), self-employment, and irregularity of earnings.

Expanding the scope of contributory schemes to cover those with sufficient means to contribute is a first step to closing the coverage gaps. Moreover, such measures broaden the schemes' contribution collection base and, as such, contribute to their financial sustainability.

Removing the legal barriers that prevent certain groups from contributing to social security requires legislative changes outside the social security institutions' realm. However, once legal frameworks are adapted, the successful implementation of such measures is highly dependent on the responsiveness and coordination between different institutions involved in the administration and supervision of the relevant programs.

In this context, good practices from Colombia, Mexico, and Uruguay display different strategies implemented by the relevant social security institutions to extend the coverage of existing contributory schemes to self-employed persons and informal workers in the so-called creative economy as well as to domestic workers.

1. Colombia: Retirement savings for self-employed and independent artists

The general pension system in Colombia mandatorily covers all employed and self-employed persons earning at least the monthly minimum wage. As such, the system’s design excludes self-employed persons and informal workers at the lower end of the income distribution. To overcome this barrier, the Government introduced a complementary system (Beneficios Económicos Periódicos – BEPS) based on individual accounts that allows workers with low and irregular income to voluntarily save for retirement while providing an incentive equal to 20 per cent of their account balance once they reach the retirement age. The Colombian Pension Administrator (Administradora Colombiana de Pensiones – Colpensiones) manages the BEPS program since 2015.

One of the good practices submitted by Colpensiones to the ISSA Good Practice Award for the Americas competition presents its strategy to extend the BEPS programme's coverage. Specifically, in 2018, Colpensiones launched an initiative to incentivize the affiliation of self-employed persons working in the creative economy, which comprises artisans, visual artists, actors, musicians, and other persons in the cultural industry. The strategy focuses on three components to increase the number of participants and to mobilize resources from different societal and economic actors, which are used to increase the savings accumulated by the participants in their individual accounts:

  • Reaching out to regional and local governments to secure additional resources. By June 2020, 471 regional and local governments, which correspond to 43 per cent of Colombian municipalities, participated in this initiative.
  • Partnerships with private sector enterprises in the framework of voluntary donations as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) campaigns.
  • Sensitization and awareness campaigns to incentivize potential contributors to save for retirement.

As part of this initiative, Colpensiones has already established one partnership with a private-sector enterprise that mobilized a 52,300 United States dollar (USD) donation to be used to support the retirement savings of vulnerable independent artists. Likewise, based on Colpensiones' data, out of the 371,000 workers that comprise the creative economy in Colombia, around 18,000 persons now have a BEPS individual account.

2. Mexico: Implementing a pilot programme for the coverage of domestic workers

Following a Supreme Court of Justice ruling that declared the lack of mandatory social security coverage of domestic workers unconstitutional, the Mexican Social Security Institute (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social – IMSS) implemented a pilot programme in 2019 to facilitate the coverage of these workers.

A good practice submitted by the IMSS describes this pilot programme that consists of the creation of an optional special system for domestic workers, which includes financial and administrative features that are tailored to their realities. However, it offers the same benefit guarantees that are provided by the General Social Security System (Régimen General Obligatorio – RGO), including protection in case of sickness, maternity, disability, work injury, old age, and death. Similarly to workers covered under the RGO, domestic workers in the special system are also eligible for an early pension in case of unemployment after reaching age 60, certain social family benefits, and day care services for the insured’s children. Employers can opt for fulfilling their obligations towards their domestic workers by affiliating them directly to the RGO (under the same rules as for any other employer) or through the special system that is being piloted.

Several elements make this strategy a good practice for the extension of contributory schemes to previously uncovered groups. These include:

  • The pilot programme has clear operating rules defined by the IMSS and published in the national gazette.
  • The scheme’s design considers the specificities of domestic work (i.e. the existence of multiple employers and part-time work) and allows employers to pay prorated contributions.
  • The implementation of the pilot was accompanied by a communication campaign to inform employers of their social security obligations.
  • The IMSS developed a microsite for domestic workers and their employers. It includes several tutorials, explanatory videos, and a contributions estimator.

3. Uruguay: Sustained efforts to materialize domestic worker’s right to social security

Law No. 18.065 of 2006 provides that all labour and social security legislation in Uruguay shall be applicable to domestic workers. The enactment of this law made domestic workers subject to mandatory coverage under the general social security system administered by the Social Insurance Bank (Banco de Previsión Social –  BPS).

To ensure that legal coverage translates into effective coverage, BPS has continued to innovate in reaching out to domestic workers. These efforts are reflected in a good practice submitted by the BPS to the Good Practice Award 2020, and include:

  • Developing a microsite that contains all relevant information for domestic workers and their employers.
  • Launching a series of communication campaigns to create awareness of social security rights and obligations.
  • Facilitating administrative procedures for employers, including through the design of user-friendly tools for online affiliation of workers and contribution collection.
  • Encouraging clients to switch from face-to-face transactions to online services while ensuring the availability of technical support through a chatbot and specialized customer service agents available 24/7.

Regarding the effectiveness of BPS's measures from 2006 to 2018, Figure 1 presents the evolution of the number of employers registered in BPS and the number of contributing domestic workers over this period. Based on the institution's administrative data, the number of domestic workers affiliated with BPS reached 76,360 in 2019, compared to 43,272 workers in 2006. Likewise, the third axis displays how contribution evasion for this category of workers decreased from 60.81 per cent in 2006 to 36.38 per cent in 2017 (latest data available).

Figure 1. Evolution of employers registered and contributing domestic workers
Figure 1
Source: Based on administrative data provided by BPS.


Extending the coverage of existing contributory schemes to difficult-to-cover groups is an essential and necessary step to overcome the social protection coverage gap and to facilitate the realization of the human right to social security for all, regardless of the individual's employment status.

While legislative changes are beyond the mandate of social security institutions, they have considerable space for innovation both in the implementation of existing schemes and in promoting the removal of legal barriers to coverage extension. This is demonstrated by the innovative strategies of social security institutions in Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay to include self-employed persons and independent workers in the creative economy as well as domestic workers into their national social security systems.

The approach developed by Colpensiones in Colombia to incentivize the affiliation of independent artists can offer valuable insights for other countries seeking to cover this group of workers. Lessons learnt relate in particular to the identification and characterization of the targeted group, the emphasis on communicating the scheme's advantages, and the innovative approach for resource mobilization, which includes partnerships with local governments and the private sector.

As regards domestic workers, the BPS experience in Uruguay highlights the importance of a medium and long-term approach that considers the particularities of this type of employment. In turn, the case of the IMSS in Mexico emphasizes the importance of equal benefit rights between different groups. In particular, measures aimed at facilitating employers' registration, workers' affiliation, estimation and payment of contributions, and customer service to guide employers through the administrative processes are crucial to enhance compliance.

All good practices point to the need to overcome a lack of awareness of rights, entitlements, and obligations regarding social protection, which is a key barrier to extending coverage to persons in the informal economy and to vulnerable groups. Therefore, attention to communication channels and the implementation of awareness-raising activities to reach out to current and future contributors must be components of any coverage extension strategy.

As countries continue to work towards Universal Social Protection, the capacity of social security institutions to innovate as regards the extension of contributory schemes to difficult-to-cover groups will be a key condition for success. In this regard, the ISSA Guidelines: Administrative Solutions for Extending Coverage and the ISSA Database of Good Practices provide further guidance and practical tools for social security institutions.


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