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‘New tech’ business model threatens decent work conditions

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gender equality

Unemployment is down globally but workers’ conditions have not improved, the UN said on Wednesday, warning that some businesses driven by new technology “threaten to undermine” hard-won social gains of recent decades.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), most of the 3.3 billion people employed worldwide in 2018 did not enjoy adequate levels of economic security, and lacked sufficient material well-being as well as too few opportunities for advancement.

In total, 172 million people were jobless last year – one in 20 individuals of working age – ILO’s Trends in Global Employment 2019 report shows.

This unemployment rate, which has only just returned to levels last seen before the 2008-9 financial crisis, is not expected to change this year or next, assuming stable global economic conditions; although current uncertainty is “already having a negative effect on the labour market” in upper middle-income countries, it says.

Nonetheless, “being in employment does not always guarantee a decent living,” said Damian Grimshaw, ILO Director of Research. “A full 700 million people are living in extreme or moderate poverty despite having employment.”

Fewer working-poor…in middle-income countries

On a positive note, the ILO report highlights that working poverty has decreased in middle-income countries over the past three decades, although poorer nations are likely to see a rise in the number of working poor.

This is because the pace of poverty reduction is not expected to keep up with employment growth in these emerging economies, despite China’s major contribution in reducing the working poor levels as a result of strong economic growth since 1993.

The ILO data also shows that 360 million people in 2018 worked in a family business and 1.1 billion worked for themselves – often in subsistence activities because of an absence of job opportunities in the formal sector and/or the lack of a social protection system.

Workers ‘unable to find more work or too discouraged to look’

Linked to the challenge of bringing down unemployment, the UN report identifies a lack of opportunity for those who want to work.

This includes those who would like to make the jump from part-time to full-time work and the long-term jobless, who become so discouraged that they stop looking.

Taken together, poor workplace conditions, unemployment and gender inequality have contributed to slower-than-anticipated progress in achieving the key development goal of sustainable work for all, as set out in the 2030 Agenda.

Under 48 per cent of women work, versus 75 per cent of men

Among the most striking labour issues in the report is the continued lack of progress made in closing the gender gap at work, with less than 50 per cent of women in the labour force in 2018, compared with three quarters of men.

This problem is universal, ILO maintains, although the gender gap is widest in the Arab States, Northern Africa and Southern Asia.

Another challenge is the size of the informal sector – a “staggering” two billion workers, or 61 per cent of the world’s workforce. “Informal employment is the reality for the majority of workers worldwide,” ILO notes.

Also of concern is the fact that more than one in five people under 25 years old are not in employment, education or training; part of 15 per cent decline between 1993 and 2018 that is set to continue.

Innovative technology threatens to undermine rights at work

Noting how a country’s level of development is linked to the availability of reasonably paid work or adequate welfare protection for those who need it, the report cautions that these and other labour market achievements “are still elusive” for many.

“Securing these gains is therefore a major challenge that policy-makers must face up to,” the ILO WESO report insists, noting also that innovative technologies “threaten to undermine” these labour market achievements and others, such as job security, collective bargaining and compliance with labour standards and rights at work.

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UNSC urged to act in face of ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ in Haiti

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file photo © WFP/Marianela González

The Security Council must act urgently to support Haiti as the gang, economic, and fuel supply crises there “intersect in altogether new and frightening ways”, the head of the UN Mission in the country, BINUH, said on Monday. 

Meanwhile, political stakeholders are still struggling to find common ground and define a path to elections against this backdrop, she added. 

Haitian-led solution critical 

“An economic crisis, a gang crisis, and a political crisis have converged into a humanitarian catastrophe. We must not lose hope, but rather combine our efforts to find a pathway to a better tomorrow,” said UN Special Representative Helen La Lime, speaking from the capital Port-au-Prince. 

“A Haitian-led political solution is the first necessary step to address the current crisis. To support Haitians in their effort towards a better future, this Council must take urgent action.” 

Gang violence continues to disrupt daily life in Haiti, driving more than 20,000 people from their homes. 

More than 1 million affected 

The UN estimates that at least 1.5 million people in the Caribbean country have been directly impacted by recent unrest, with gender-based violence, and in particular rape, being used systematically. 

The economic crisis has caused food prices to soar, while fuel is often available only on the black market. 

Protests broke out in Haiti after the Prime Minister announced on 11 September that the Government will reduce some $400 million in fuel subsidies in efforts to increase revenue for social programmes. 

By the following day, barricades had been erected throughout the country, prompting a nationwide shutdown, with the situation persisting in the capital for a full five days. 

One of the largest gang alliances also blocked the main fuel terminal there on 12 September. The siege lasted for over a week, despite concerted operations by the police over the weekend. 

Good offices role 

On the political front, Ms. La Lime said she has maintained good relations with all sectors of society and has encouraged dialogue. 

“While so-far inconclusive efforts have led to a perceived stalemate, national stakeholders have begun to re-engage with a renewed sense of urgency. In the past weeks, Government representatives, political groups, and civil society organizations launched new consultations on ways to forge a wider consensus on a path to elections. But we’re not there yet,” she said. 

Aid delivery hampered

The insecurity has also severely curtailed humanitarian access and made it “very difficult and dangerous” to deliver, according to Valerie N. Guarnieri, Deputy Executive Director at the World Food Programme (WFP). 

 “We expect food security to further deteriorate this year, surpassing the record high of 4.5 million people estimated to face crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity, including 1.3 million people in emergency,” she said. 

The gangs strangling the capitol are blocking access to fuel supplies and key logistics hubs, including ports and airports, as well as road access to other areas of the country.  

Protesters have also ransacked and looted humanitarian warehouses, with WFP losing one-third of its food stocks in just one week. UN agencies and partners estimate they have lost some $6 million during such attacks, which come at the peak of the hurricane season. 

Appeal for support 

Ms. Guarnieri stressed that WFP and other aid agencies intend to stay and deliver in Haiti despite the challenges, but will need greater assistance. 

“Simply put, we’re not in a position to support all of those that need our help due to the general lawlessness and operational environment,” she said. 

“Therefore, we’re looking forward to increased support from the Member States, from you, to further facilitate humanitarian access as well as protection of humanitarian actors, personnel and assets.”  

Fighting illicit trafficking 

The armed groups not only compromise stability and security, they also hamper efforts towards peace and lasting development, said Ghada Fathi Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC). 

Haiti is particularly vulnerable to the illicit traffic in commodities, particularly drugs, firearms and ammunition. due to its 1,500 kilometres of coastline and land border with the Dominican Republic. 

Ms. Waly said UNODC is supporting border management and is working to map out transnational criminal activities in Haiti, as well as their regional impact. 

They are also assisting the authorities in building capacity to inspect containers at strategic points such as ports and border crossings. 

“These efforts should ensure that customs revenue be effectively sent to activities to support border modernization and border management,” she said, speaking in French. 

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Health & Wellness

A good night’s sleep is a tonic to remember

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BY ANTHONY KING

Everyone suffers restless nights from time to time. Chewing over failures or worries at the end of the day undermines rest, especially deep sleep. ‘A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow,’ wrote author Charlotte Brontë.  

A good night’s sleep serves as a tonic. What’s more, it is long recognised that shuteye gives learning and memory a boost. More recently, scientists revealed that the early phase of deep slow-wave sleep is especially important.

‘When you learn something in the evening, that information becomes reactivated during sleep,’ said Dr Bjoern Rasch, who took part in the Horizon-funded MemoSleep project and is a professor at the University of Fribourg.

The Swiss researcher added that ‘Ruminations and negative thoughts increase our awakenings during sleep, make us wake earlier than we want and make us sleep less deeply.’ 

Reactivated thoughts

But there is good news too. Positive thoughts can also be reactivated in brain circuits and, in the process, improve sleep, according to Dr Rasch. He organized an experiment around the whole idea.  

His test was a small boon to students in his university who received 50 Swiss francs (EUR 52) for every night they spent snoozing in a comfortable four-bed sleeping laboratory.

The students were connected to an electroencephalogram that monitored their brain waves. They also had their muscles monitored to record when they fell into slumber and what sleep-state they were in.

Some relaxation strategies allow people to fall asleep faster, but don’t change the quality of sleep afterwards, according to Dr Rasch. He played hypnotic tapes with imagery such as a fish swimming in deep water, and with words suggestive of safety and relaxation, for the students.

‘The subjects spent more time in the deeper slow-wave sleep stage after listening to the hypnotic tape,’ said Dr Rasch. ‘We would explain this by an increased reactivation of relaxing and reassuring thoughts during sleep, heard previously during the hypnosis tape.’

In future studies, Dr Rasch hopes to help patients who suffer from insomnia. 

‘It could not only help them fall asleep but could actually make their sleep more restful,’ he said. Furthermore, this could aid people with psychological illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, who sleep poorly.

Seahorses and learning

The seahorse-shaped part of the brain called the hippocampus (from the Greek word for seahorse) is especially important for learning and memory. Scientists often use rodents to investigate their hippocampus in learning and sleep.

Rats, for example, are masters at remembering paths through mazes to find foods. The hippocampus is key to this recall.  

Dr Juan Ramirez-Villegas uses rodents to probe how mammalian brains store memories – work that could eventually contribute to fighting human illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. 

As part of the Horizon-funded DREAM project, he discovered that another part of the brain – the brainstem – plays a crucial role along with the hippocampus and becomes active beforehand.

‘It seems like the brainstem is setting up some scenery so that the hippocampus can reactivate memories across different stages of sleep,’ said Dr Ramirez-Villegas, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria. 

He has attached electrodes to record activity in the brains of rats as they navigate a maze and afterwards as they sleep. Sleeping allows the brain to replay daytime events and etch them as long-term memories. 

‘It is very striking that the cells fire in the same order during sleep that they did during learning, but they are more compressed in time during sleep,’ said Dr Ramirez-Villegas.

How we remember

The discovery was surprising because it suggests that the brainstem has an overlooked function in stimulating and changing memory formation. This seems to be true for rodents as much as for primates and, as a result, is likely to be a basic mechanism of the brains of mammals, including people. 

The research, while crucial to understanding the basic operation of the brain, could have clinical benefits too. ‘We are untangling the basic principles of memory processes, but we can also use these to ameliorate the effects of memory-related illnesses,’ said Dr Ramirez-Villegas.

The research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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Environment

GHG emissions from pyrolysis are nine times higher than in mechanical recycling

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New study published today by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) finds that greenhouse gas emissions from pyrolysis of plastic packaging are nine times higher than that of mechanical recycling. The “Climate impact of pyrolysis of waste plastic packaging in comparison with reuse and mechanical recycling” study is based on the estimated future recycling content targets in plastic packaging.

BACKGROUND: In the context of the revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), the European Commission (EC) assigned the independent consultancy Eunomia to consider the possible introduction of recycled content targets for plastic packaging by 2030. Based on the estimated future recycling content targets in plastic packaging, Eunomia determined to recycle quantities that must come as outputs from chemical recycling or mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling, in this case, means thermo-chemical (i.e. pyrolysis) recycling.

With this study, commissioned by ZWE and Rethink Plastic alliance to Öko-Institut, we calculated the impact of Eunomia’s proposed scenario regarding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carbon loss. The study compares seven scenarios to meet the projected recycled content target by 2030, and puts them into perspective with the Paris Agreement commitments to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The study found that: 

  • Pyrolysis GHG emissions are nine times higher than those in mechanical recycling – in all scenarios considered over 75% of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to chemical recycling;
  • Over half of the carbon content of plastic is lost in the pyrolysis process and has to be replaced by new plastic;
  • Mechanical recycling must be prioritised over pyrolysis wherever possible –  shifting 30% of the production attributed to chemical recycling by Eunomia to mechanical recycling would reduce GHG emissions by 31%;
  • Combining shit to more mechanical recycling together with a reduction of 20% of packaging would result in a 45% reduction of GHG emissions compared to the “chemical recycling scenario”.
  • Combining mechanical and chemical recycling to transform plastic waste into recyclate avoids the GHG emissions associated with the use of primary plastic.


ZWE’s Chemical Recycling and Plastic-to-Fuel Policy Officer, Lauriane Veillard says: “The revision of the PPWD should serve as a lever to make the packaging sector more circular and be in line with European climate commitments to limit Global Warming to 1.5 Degrees Celsius. There are other ways than pyrolysis for contact-sensitive materials. The climate impact of the managing pathways should be considered when setting targets. The revision is the opportunity to rethink the overall volume and the use we make of plastic packaging.“

With this in mind, ZWE urges the European Commission (EC) to consider the reports’ findings in the upcoming revision of the PPWD and to:

  • Introduce legal safeguards to prioritise mechanical recycling over pyrolysis;
  • Consider the climate impact of different recycling technologies when settings targets for recycled content;
  • Incentivise measures such as design for recycling and innovations along the plastic packaging value chain to facilitate mechanical recycling.

Lauriane Veillard adds: “If we are serious about achieving net-zero emission economy, mechanical recycling must be preferred over pyrolysis. However, this cannot be achieved unless legal safeguards as part of the P&PWD revision are introduced to prioritise mechanical processes for recycling packaging waste complemented with ambitious prevention and reuse targets”. 

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