The Financial Express

Corona recovery: reviving a resilient world of work

| Updated: January 28, 2022 20:57:03

Casual workers, temporary workers and those whose work arrangements are unknown comprise over 50 per cent of garment, textile and footwear employees in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar. 	—ILO Photo Casual workers, temporary workers and those whose work arrangements are unknown comprise over 50 per cent of garment, textile and footwear employees in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar. —ILO Photo

The 187 member-states of the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted a Global Call to Action in June 2021 by targeting a human-centred recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic through incorporation of inclusivity, sustainability, and resilience in the agenda. That call was made in the wake of a modest and uneven recovery, which, however, lost momentum during the second half of 2021 owing to a rapid surge of the Indian or delta variant of the novel coronavirus. Consequently, the world now confronts fragile- cum- uncertain prospects regarding employment and socioeconomic growth, as claimed in the 'World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2022' recently published by the ILO.

As pointed out in this flagship report, the pandemic has weakened and jeopardised the social, economic and financial fabrics in almost all countries of the world, although significant variations were observed based on differences in vaccination coverage and economic recovery efforts. But although a majority of developed countries could substantially recoup their income and employment losses, the developing and emerging economies had to grapple with the labour- market fallouts stemming from workplace closures due to lockdowns as well as weakening of economic activities.

The ILO undertook is a comprehensive evaluation of the global labour-market recovery, which reflected varying approaches adopted by different countries and regions. This report delved into the global trends, regional variations and reported outcomes across socioeconomic sectors and worker groups, and also made labour-market projections for the years 2022 and 2023. In addition, it put forward a set of major policy recommendations for bolstering transnational-cum-national efforts for materialising a human-centric recovery in line with the Global Call of ILO.

The pandemic effectively prevented a full and balanced recovery of labour markets across the globe even during 2021. As a result, previous gains in decent work have been severely impacted since the onset of the malady. This, coupled with pre-existing deficits, dampened the prospects for sustainable labour-market recovery in most regions. The ILO predicts that total hours worked globally will dip below their pre-pandemic level by almost 2.0 per cent during 2022 (after adjusting for population growth). Consequently, global unemployment would stand at 207 million during the year, surpassing by about 21 million the figure for 2019 prior to the pandemic.

The recovery patterns have been found to vary significantly across regions, countries and sectors. Besides, employment-growth trends in lower and middle-income countries have remained markedly below those observed in wealthier nations since the start of the recovery process. This is attributed to mainly lower vaccination rates and tighter fiscal outlooks in developing countries, which had higher inequality, more divergent working conditions and weaker social protection systems even before the pandemic broke out. Moreover, underlying structural deficiencies and inequalities have been exacerbating and prolonging its adverse impacts.

 Traditionally, many developing nations have large informal economies that impair the effectiveness of some policy instruments. As a result, relief and incentive measures were less likely to reach those who needed support, and smaller businesses experienced greater drops in employment and working hours compared to larger entities. The employment losses and working-hour reductions, in turn, resulted in shrunk incomes. Besides, developing economies relying on export of labour-intensive goods or services have struggled to adjust with volatile external demands owing to the pandemic.

Fluctuations in market demand and rapid rise in the demand for online services also increased trading costs, and often created bottlenecks in production and supply. Intense and prolonged supply-chain shocks also created an uncertain business climate that could ultimately lead to geographic reconfiguration of production sites with significant implications for the labour market. Besides, the rise in prices of essential goods while labour markets await a recovery has led to substantial reduction in disposable income of the common people. As it will take some time before the labour demand rises to pre-pandemic level, growth rate of employment and working hours is likely to remain low in the foreseeable future.

 The ILO report predicts that the employment-to-population ratio would stand at 55.9 per cent globally during 2022, which is 1.4 per cent below the figure for 2019. As many of those workers who left the labour force have not returned, the unemployment figures still underestimate the pandemic's full impact. As opposed to 186 million during 2019, the number of unemployed is expected to reach 207 million in 2022, the figure for 2021 being 214 million. Moreover, the recovery would continue to remain unequal within countries with disproportionate impact on women's employment over the coming years. This disparity is most pronounced in upper-middle-income countries, where employment-to-population ratio for women is expected to stay at 1.8 per cent below the 2019 figure, despite women's share in the employment market being 16 per cent less than men's. The pandemic has also deepened different types of inequalities, including exacerbation of gender imbalance and the widening of digital divide. Such changes may eventually become structural in nature having long-term implications for the labour markets.

The share of temporary employment in total employment had been rising over time even before the outbreak of the Covid-19. It is largely structural and determined by sector-wise and occupational composition of the labour market, but it tends to serve as a shock absorber during calamities. These ratios are particularly higher in low- and middle-income countries (over one-third) compared to those in high-income nations (15 per cent). In general, lesser paid workers are adversely affected by temporary work due to greater insecurity of jobs and incomes as well as lesser access to social protection. Temporary workers endured higher rates of job losses compared to non-temporary or permanent workers at the start of the pandemic, but newly created temporary jobs marked a rise after that. However, over a quarter of temporary workers during the first half of 2021 were previously engaged in non-temporary jobs, which reflected the economic uncertainty and employment insecurity prevailing at that juncture.

Meanwhile, the ILO Data Finder also projects that unemployment Bangladesh may drop slightly to 3.60 million in 2022 from estimated 3.70 million in 2021. It may decline further to 3.50 million in 2023 due to economic recovery.  ILO, however, cautioned that due to Covid-19, the estimates and projections are subject to a considerable degree of uncertainty. Country data published after the date of production of these estimates could differ from those.

The ILO report also emphasises a comprehensive human-centred policy agenda for preventing long-lasting damages in the labour market. It calls for 'Rebuilding the economy in ways that address systemic and structural inequalities and other long-term social and economic challenges that predate the pandemic. The prerequisite for achieving such resilience is multilateral action and global solidarity - including with respect to vaccine access, debt restructuring and facilitating a green transition'.  Four critical pillars have been identified for such a recovery: inclusive economic growth, protection of all workers, universal social protection, and social dialogue.

Fiscal policies should not only strive to protect jobs, incomes and employment, they should also address structural challenges and the root causes of deficits in decent work. After taking into cognisance the constraints and priorities of individual countries, policies should aim for large-scale creation of productive employment backed by industrial policies, skills development, proactive labour-market policies, including reduction in digital divide, and continuous investment in universal social protection.

 The novel coronavirus has uncovered the vulnerabilities faced by essential, informal, self-employed, temporary, migrant, platform and low-skilled workers in labour markets. Therefore, efforts should be made for guaranteeing fundamental rights at work, and ensuring health, safety and gender equality at workplaces. A key priority should be to bridge the gaps for extending adequate and sustainable social protection. Besides, tripartite social dialogues involving the governments, employers and the workers can be helpful in finding mutually beneficial solutions to emerging problems, including in minimising or curbing job losses. As the ILO director-general pointed out in the preface to the report, it may take years for many countries to repair the damage without effective international and domestic policies. Consequently, it is essential for governments, workers and employers' organisations to come together with renewed determination for addressing the evolving challenges.


Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. [email protected]


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