INTERVIEW: Workers around the world face novel challenges amid global crises

Mohamed Elkazaz, Hend ElSayed Hani, Tuesday 3 May 2022

Ahram daily newspaper talked to Guy Ryder, the director-general of the International Labour Organisation, about the new challenges facing workers and economies across the world amid a multitude of crises, especially the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guy Ryder
Guy Ryder, the director-general of the International Labour Organisation. Guy Ryder Twitter account.


Ahram: In light of crises like the COVID epidemic, supply chain disruptions and the Russian-Ukrainian war, what are the challenges that the International Labour Organisation sees?

Guy Rider: What we see in every crisis is that the most vulnerable people suffer the most. Even during recovery processes, it is often the most disadvantaged that profit the least. Furthermore, these crises hit the world when labour markets were already faced with the impact of the challenges like new and old demographic realities, uneven technological changes, and climate change in addition to persistent labour market realities such as gender inequalities, high levels of unemployment especially for young people, informality, lack of social protections and increasing working poverty. Progress made in these areas, which were modest in many countries, are now at risk. There is a danger that we can lose decades of achievements in labour markets around the world. These are the unprecedented obstacles we need to overcome to ensure a human-centred recovery.

A: The world will celebrate Labour Day on the first of May. What is your message to workers on their holiday?

GR: Labour Day serves as a reminder of the importance in our lives of each and every worker, ranging from health workers to store workers, bakers to delivery staff, farmers to pharmacists, barbers to waiters and waitresses, domestic workers to taxi drivers.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has primarily hit lives and livelihoods of those that had already been in precarious situations prior to the crisis. Informal economy workers, among whom women, migrants and young workers are overrepresented, and workers in precarious work arrangements or new forms of work such as in the platform economy have seen income and employment fall dramatically, threatening to plunge millions of workers into poverty.

The labour market recovery in 2022 will be slower than initially projected and global unemployment is expected to remain above pre-COVID-19 levels until at least 2023. Particularly worrisome, is the deepening inequalities within and among countries, a damage that is likely to require years to repair, with potential long-term consequences for labour force participation, household incomes and social cohesion. But we must also recall that such inequalities are not just a consequence of the current crisis, much as they have been exacerbated; and nor is this by any means the only crisis we have faced in the recent past.

The relevance of the Centenary Declaration, adopted by the International Labour Conference in 2019, to the impact of COVID-19 on the world of work was further underlined unanimously by the ILO constituents with the adoption of the call to action for a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis at the International Labour Conference in June this year. 

What we need to do now is to focus on a human-centred recovery that creates decent work, especially in the green, care and digital economies to contribute to a just transition to carbon neutral economies.That is what we are trying to achieve at the ILO.

A: The three crises previously mentioned eliminated millions of jobs. What is the role of the organisation in setting policies to limit the impact of this on developing countries in particular?  What lessons can be learned from the COVID-19 crisis in formulating a vision for social protection?

GR: The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a stress test for gauging national crisis preparedness.

Pervasive challenges such as high levels of economic insecurity, persistent poverty, rising inequality, extensive informality and a fragile social contract have been exacerbated by COVID-19. The crisis also exposed the vulnerability of billions of people who seemed to be getting by relatively well but were not adequately protected from the socio-economic shock waves it has emitted.

The pandemic’s socio-economic impacts have made it difficult for policymakers to ignore a number of population groups – including children, older persons, unpaid carers, and women and men working in diverse forms of employment and in the informal economy – who were covered either inadequately or not at all by existing social protection measures.

In revealing these gaps, ILO’s reports show that the pandemic has propelled countries into unprecedented policy action, with social protection at the forefront.

Countries with solid social protection systems in place before the crisis could rely on pre-existing schemes that automatically fulfilled their protective function, while injecting further financing where needed and focusing on emergency programmes to help groups in need of additional support.

Countries with weaker social protection systems faced greater challenges, having to urgently fill gaps by introducing new measures or extending the coverage.  Let us not forget that right now more than half of the global population, some four billion people, have no social protection at all.

Gaps in the coverage, comprehensiveness and adequacy of social protection systems are associated with significant underinvestment in social protection, particularly in Africa, the Arab states and Asia. Countries spend on average 12.9 percent of their GDP on social protection (excluding health), but this figure masks staggering variations. High-income countries spend on average 16.4 percent, or twice as much as upper-middle-income countries (which spend eight percent), six times as much as lower-middle-income countries (2.5 percent), and 15 times as much as low-income countries (1.1 percent).

The crisis has poignantly demonstrated not only that from the viewpoint of human rights it is unacceptable to deny people their fundamental rights and jeopardise their human dignity, but that we are all only as safe as the most vulnerable among us.

Consequently, it is essential that countries – governments, social partners and other stakeholders – now resist the pressures to fall back on a low-road trajectory and that they pursue a high-road social protection strategy to contend with the ongoing pandemic, and to secure a human-centred recovery and an inclusive future.

A: During the past two years, there have been "serious consequences" for two billion workers in the informal sector in the world. What is your vision to reduce these consequences in terms of job security and the minimum wage?

GR: Indeed, two billion people – more than six out of ten workers in the world – make their living in the informal economy. The ILO estimates that some 1.6 billion of these workers have been significantly impacted by the COVID pandemic. Among them, women and young workers have been particularly hard hit.

In the early stages of the pandemic, in countries characterised by large informal economies, informal workers were more likely than formal workers to lose their jobs or be forced into inactivity by lockdowns and other measures. In response, a significant number of governments have included the informal workers among the beneficiaries of their policies and measures to mitigate the impact of the crisis. As the crisis recedes, governments can move from emergency responses to more sustainable mechanisms. This means realising one or several of the following actions: (1) extending legal coverage to those excluded or insufficiently covered; (2) providing an adequate level of legal protection and (3) ensuring an effective compliance with laws and regulations. 

Minimum wages is one of the laws and regulations which tends to be poorly complied with wage employees in the informal economy. The latest Global Wage Report shows that, even before the pandemic, there were an estimated 266 million wage workers (15 percent of all wage earners) who were paid less than the minimum wage. Although difficult to quantify, it is very likely that the pandemic has dramatically increased the number of people who work in the informal economy for less than the minimum wage.

At the end, formalisation of the economy is a complex and long-term process that often requires to combine interventions on laws and regulations with those aiming to foster productivity and the ability to generate wealth. For part of the workforce, the reduction of decent work deficits is the first step toward a progressive formalisation in the longer term. The significant reduction of informality in some countries illustrates that achieving results is largely possible.

In this regard, tripartite and bipartite social dialogue should be the bedrock of policy responses. Employers’ and workers’ organisations can play a critical role in delivering or advocating for support services, such as access to technologies, finance and business development services, and fostering linkages with formal enterprises as an incentive for formalisation. To be even more effective, the measures should strengthen dialogue and cooperation between the tripartite partners and the organisations representing those in the informal economy. Therefore, effective consultation with social partners is essential to prevent possible negative impact of such actions on the overall economy. 

A: How do you explain the decline in union affiliation in all its professional sectors? And how this is affecting their capacities in supporting workers for COVID-19 recovery? 

GR: Trade union membership worldwide has been going down over time in certain sectors, despite a number of bright spots in certain African or Latin American countries where membership increased. Different factors come into play in this overall decrease such as the shift from manufacturing to service jobs, the outsourcing of unionised jobs, the informalisation of the economy and the changing employment relationship, and automation.

Trade union membership is lower for people in non-standard or precarious types of employment, such as temporary and own-account workers or workers in the informal and gig economy Furthermore, legal restrictions and violations of trade union rights, such as the right to organise and to bargain collectively, are widespread. This affects trade unions’ ability to organise, to represent and to service workers. Not surprisingly, trade union membership is lower there where there are violations of trade union rights.

On the other hand, we have seen how the lives and livelihoods of workers and their families have been seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic that to date has infected over 250 million people and cost over five million lives across the world.

The relevance of the Centenary Declaration to the impact of COVID-19 on the world of work was further underlined unanimously by the ILO constituents with the adoption of the Call to Action for a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis at the International Labour Conference in June this year. 

Despite the challenges, what is needed for inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery is the participation of a strong and representative labour movement in social dialogue processes at national, sectoral and international level. We need workers’ representatives to be part of the design and implementation of economic and social policies that support all workers in order to attain a truly human-centred recovery. Above all, we need to strengthen those labour institutions that have been built over the past century and a half, and ensure that their coverage extends to all workers, especially those who are the most vulnerable in society.

A: In the midst of all these calamities and crises, the shortage of skilled manpower still represents a major challenge facing many developing countries in many sectors. What is required to meet these challenges?

GR: Labour market challenges are becoming increasingly complex and demand more elaborated skill sets. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries were experiencing a persistent gap between the skills needed in the labour market and skills available. Employers are now expecting workers to be more adaptable, to be equipped with stronger core work skills and to develop their competency profiles at a much quicker pace than ever before. Companies also need these new skills to create the decent jobs at the heart of the intended human-centred recovery.

We need to give workers access to the skills development opportunities to evolve within increasingly complex education pathways and careers. The main solutions required for education and training in developing countries revolve around four issues: how to increase access, in particular to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups; how to ensure that the training programmes are market-relevant and training providers are accountable for employment outcomes; how qualifications can be perceived and trusted as reputable signals of competence on the labour market; and how skills systems can effectively transition to digital and blended learning.

A: With the loss of millions of jobs, a new crises stemming from jobs at risk due to the rise of automation remains a new dilemma. How can it be dealt with?

GR: There is much concern today that new automation technologies and robotics will displace humans in the workplace. Yet, there is little knowledge about how automation will actually play out on the shopfloors and assembly lines of companies and enterprises in different sectors, or the bottlenecks at the practical level. These will affect the extent and speed with which new automation technologies are adopted, and have an impact on employment at the firm, sector and aggregate levels.

Automation will be felt differently across the world of work. Workers in advanced economies or with high level of skills will benefit from new technologies that make them more productive, help them deliver their products and services faster or make their workplaces safer. For many workers in emerging markets, or with less advanced skills, however, these new technologies represent a threat to their jobs.

But let us be clear: There is a difference between what could, in theory, be automated, and what will be automated. Furthermore, while it may appear that many routine jobs in labour-intensive industries can easily be done by robots, there may be bottlenecks to deploying new technologies. These technological and economic bottlenecks are often overlooked and unappreciated, but could create significant constraints for actual adoption of new technologies.

To tackle these challenges, we need to help all workers access the right skills and education to be able to switch jobs. Young people need to be able to access the labour market with a sufficient level of competencies. Retraining and reskilling needs to be available at all ages and experience levels. The education system needs to offer true life-long learning opportunities.At the same time, workers in transition need to receive the necessary support. This requires an adequate social security system for those who have lost their jobs.

A: Egypt will organise this year the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27). There are major repercussions of climate change on the rights of workers, the labour market and the productive sectors. What is required to face these repercussions?

GR: Climate change is a significant threat to the advancement of social justice and the realisation of decent work for all. The ILO has estimated that an increase in heat stress resulting from global warming could lead to global productivity losses equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs in the year 2030. Six million jobs could be lost in the fossil fuel industries, notably in the Middle East and Africa. But at the same time, some 24 million new jobs could be created through measures to promote renewable energy development, energy efficiency and sustainable transportation.

Integrated policies are indispensable. This implies comprehensive national policy frameworks including for skilling, industrial and sectoral policies, enterprise development, social protection, all underpinned by effective social dialogue, policy and institutional coherence.

Last February, the ILO organised a Global Policy Forum, which brought together heads of state and government, heads of international organisations and multilateral development banks, and employers’ and workers’ leaders from around the world to propose concrete actions to build back better and strengthen the level and coherence of the international community’s response to the social and economic fall-out of the pandemic.

As countries work to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, the world faces unprecedented environmental challenges related to climate change, pollution, and plummeting biodiversity, with crucial repercussions on employment.

At the forum’s session on Just Transition, his excellency Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, president of the Arab Republic of Egypt delivered a keynote address underlining the importance of international organisations’ support for economic recovery efforts and cooperation for a just transition.

Indeed, COVID-19 recovery and the response to the climate crisis cannot be disconnected, nor can they be sequenced. Rather, it is imperative to act concomitantly on both for a strong, coordinated and sustainable recovery.

The COP27 meeting that Egypt will host is a key milestone to advance the alignment of climate and decent work agendas, delivering on practical ways to support countries in the implementation of nationally determined contributions and net zero targets in ways that create decent work and advance social justice, thereby ensuring a just transition for all.

A: The ILO reached its ratification target for the landmark Social Security Convention No.102. Is the mission of the ILO still perceived by different states as intervention in their internal affairs?

GR: Achieving the goal of decent work in the globalised economy requires action at the international level. The world community is responding to this challenge in part by developing international legal instruments on trade, finance, the environment, human rights and labour. The ILO contributes to this legal framework by elaborating and promoting international labour standards aimed at making sure that economic growth and development go hand-in-hand with the creation of decent work.

International labour standards, including Convention No. 102, are the result of discussions among governments, employers and workers, in consultation with experts from around the world. They represent the international consensus on how a particular labour problem could be addressed at the global level. The legal nature of the standards means that they can be used in legal systems and administrations at the national level, and as part of the corpus of international law which can bring aboutgreater integration of the international community.

A: Concerning the countries suffering civil wars and breakdown of production like Yemen, Libya and Syria, what do you offer to the workforces that were laid off?

GR: Across the Arab region, the ILO is implementing several programmes to support both host populations and forcibly displaced populations to become resilient through better access to decent work and contribute to long-term economic and social development. The ILO’s experience in addressing the employment and decent work needs of refugees and host communities in the region has given us the knowledge, tools, and outreach to respond to the economic and livelihoods challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We have moved quickly to adapt our experiences to address these challenges – some examples include: conducting impact assessment of COVID-19 and other crises on the labour market in different countries. Using the Employment Intensive Investment Programme (EIIP) as an entry point to address inequalities and further expanding to include additional countries in the region like Yemen or promoting skills transfer and e-learning in various occupations for host communities and Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.  

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