Coronavirus and working life – is inequality growing?

Coronavirus and working life – is inequality growing?

The recent ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work states that persistent poverty, inequalities and injustices, conflict, disasters and other humanitarian emergencies in many parts of the world constitute a threat to decent work for all.

ILO building in Geneva.
ILO building in Geneva.

A tough return from centenary celebrations

At the time of the text formulation, no one had in mind such a global social and economic shock like the coronavirus epidemic.

The ILO estimates that the increase in the number of unemployed people caused by COVID-19 could reach a maximum of almost 25 million globally. Working hours in the second quarter are expected to be 10,5 % lower than in the last pre-crisis quarter, which is equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs. The ILO updates the estimations as the crisis progresses. Presumably, however, February 2020 will remain the last “normal” month in the history of the labour market for a long time.

Crisis and ILO labour standards

The ILO's key area of ​​expertise is international labour standards. International conventions may sound quite distant now that the coronavirus has hit jobs like a global tsunami in the form of layoffs, reorganisations, bankruptcies and redundancies.

However, the ILO framework of standards can serve as a good and fair foundation for ensuring decent working conditions during the ongoing crisis. Now more than ever the most relevant of these standards are those related to occupational health and safety, as well as employment and social security.

The ILO has published a concise question and answer COVID-19 guide documenting all relevant issues in terms of labour standards.

A trial of justice and fairness

The ongoing exceptional situation is causing great human, social and economic harm. One of the challenges of the different emergency measures introduced and to be taken in economic and employment policies is that they are fairly targeted at the various workers and businesses.

States and international organizations have since long demanded corporate social responsibility from enterprises. Some have caught the ball and ran with it, many others have not. It will be interesting to see if the corporate social responsibility debate can catch enough wind to set sail after the crisis in the ILO and elsewhere. There is little doubt that a great need for it exists.

Crisis has caused dislocation of the global supply and value creation chains. Professor Francis Fukuyama have asked whether extended and fragile supply chains that maximize efficiency are robust enough to withstand the kinds of shocks we can anticipate in the future.

The ILO has been concerned about the partial blurring of rights and responsibilities of workers and employers across these global chains. By different economic policy measures, one should seek to facilitate the restructuring of value chains, now in the crisis, but also after it. The ILO should actively continue to contribute and participate in this debate.

Threat of further inequality - nationally and internationally

As is often the case in crises, those who are already vulnerable and without adequate security are now at greatest risk. For example, immigrants, migrant workers, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities self-employed people, gig workers and those working in the informal sector. According to the ILO, almost 1,6 billion informal economy workers are impacted by the lockdown measures and/or working in the hardest-hit sectors.

The ILO has consistently spoken out in favor of at least basic social security for all. In the midst of the crisis, it sounds like an even better idea - at least better than, unfortunately, a more likely option, namely the growth of the informal economy and employment with its associated side effects, such as forced or child labor in the worst cases.

Looking forward

In normal everyday working life, the continuous development of working methods is important. A key condition for success is a solid and confident relationship between employee and the employer.

Now this confidence is again being questioned under extraordinarily difficult circumstances in the workplace, in companies, in national and international cooperation.

Difficult decisions have to be made. At the same time, however, one needs to prepare for the future. I believe that then the much-lauded trust capital in the development and research of working life and work organizations will play a key role.

The ILO, as a tripartite organization - governments and social partners - could lead the way and further enhance its trust-based cooperation.

The common goal is certainly to respond effectively to the crisis and to ensure the negative cycle in the labor market is as short as possible.

After the crisis, there will be a time for evaluation and reflection on the need for further change, in the ILO and elsewhere.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals remain the globally agreed framework for future action, including ensuring decent work for all. The importance of advocating and achieving decent work as part of the implementation of Agenda 2030 is ever more important.

The ILO needs to devote significant time for discussions on the implications of the pandemic for the world of work, and in particular step up its work and efforts on inequality. It would also be a good time to continue the ongoing work on updating international conventions.

It is clear that the ILO cannot and will not act alone. Effective international cooperation requires coordinated efforts both now and into the future to recover from this crisis.

Further information

ILO Covid-19 webpages

Finnish government information on coronavirus

Text by Antti Närhinen, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Finland, Geneva