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81 million jobs lost as COVID-19 creates turmoil in Asia-Pacific labour markets

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Women at work in a garment factory in Hai Phong, Viet Nam. © ILO

Massive drops in working hours due to the COVID-19 crisis  have had a devastating effect on jobs and incomes in Asia and the Pacific according to a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

According to Asia–Pacific Employment and Social Outlook 2020: Navigating the crisis towards a human-centred future of work  estimates, the economic backlash of the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out some 81 million jobs in 2020. In nearly all economies with available quarterly data for 2020, employment levels contracted compared to 2019.

The impact of the crisis has been far-reaching, with underemployment surging as millions of workers are asked to work reduced hours or no hours at all. Overall, working hours in Asia and the Pacific decreased by an estimated 15.2 per cent in the second quarter and by 10.7 per cent in the third quarter of 2020, relative to pre-crisis levels.

Working-hour losses are also influenced by the millions of persons moving outside the labour force or into unemployment as job creation in the region collapsed. Using available quarterly data, the report provides a preliminary estimate that the regional unemployment rate could increase from 4.4 per cent in 2019 to somewhere between 5.2 per cent and 5.7 per cent in 2020.

“COVID-19 has inflicted a hammer-blow on the region’s labour markets, one that few governments in the region stood ready to handle. Low levels of social security coverage and limited institutional capacity in many countries have made it difficult to help enterprises and workers back on their feet, a situation compounded when large numbers remain in the informal economy. These pre-crisis weaknesses have left far too many exposed to the pain of economic insecurity when the pandemic hit and inflicted its toll on working hours and jobs,” said Ms Chihoko Asada Miyakawa, ILO Assistant Director General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

Women and young people are disproportionately hit

According to the report, most countries in the region saw a larger decline in working hours and employment for women than men. Also, women were more likely to move into inactivity than men. Young people have also been especially affected by working-hour and job losses. The youth share in overall employment loss was 3 to 18 times higher than their share in total employment.

“The report shows a clear picture of young people and women being pushed out of work compared to other workers,” says Ms Sara Elder, Senior Economist at the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific and lead author of the report. “With increased unemployment, young workers are likely to find it difficult to compete for new jobs. When they do find work, it may well be a job that does not match to their aspirations. Millions of women have also paid a high price and it could take years for those who have exited the labour force to return to full employment.”

Labour income as another crisis victim

With fewer paid hours of work, median incomes are falling. Overall, labour income is estimated to have fallen by as much as 10 per cent in the Asia–Pacific region in the first three quarters of 2020, equivalent to a 3 per cent loss in gross domestic product. A further consequence is the increase in working poverty levels. In absolute numbers, preliminary estimates in the report find an additional 22 million to 25 million persons could fall into working poverty, which would push the total number of working poor (living on less than $1.90 a day) in the Asia–Pacific region to between 94 and 98 million in 2020.

The report also warns that given the scope of the damage to labour markets, the overall size of the fiscal response in the region has been insufficient, especially in the region’s developing economies. As a result of fiscal expenditure gaps, the crisis is likely to exacerbate inequalities among countries in the Asia and the Pacific.

“On the more positive side,” says Ms Elder, “we are able to show in this report that government efforts to help enterprises retain workers, albeit on reduced hours, have worked to prevent what would otherwise be larger job losses. Given the mounting evidence that social protection and employment policies save jobs and incomes, the hope is that the crisis brings about a more permanent and increased investment in elements needed to boost resilience and promote a more people-centred future of work.”

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World Economic Forum Annual Meeting rescheduled to 22-26 May

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The World Economic Forum is pleased to announce that it will hold its Annual Meeting 2022 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, from Sunday 22 to Thursday 26 May. Under the theme, Working Together, Restoring Trust, the Annual Meeting 2022 will be the first global in-person leadership event since the start of the pandemic.

The Annual Meeting 2022, returning to Davos-Klosters after a two-year hiatus, will offer world leaders an opportunity to take stock of the state of the world and shape partnerships and policies for the crucial period ahead.

Topics on the agenda will include the pandemic recovery, tackling climate change, building a better future for work, accelerating stakeholder capitalism, and harnessing the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum, said: “After all the virtual meetings taking place in the last two years, leaders from politics, business and civil society have to convene finally in person again. We need to establish the atmosphere of trust that is truly needed to accelerate collaborative action and to address the multiple challenges we face.”

The World Economic Forum will continue to communicate closely with the Swiss government on the public health situation in Switzerland. The meeting will take place as long as all necessary conditions are in place to guarantee the health and safety of its participants and the host community.

During the Davos Agenda 2022, heads of state and government and international organizations shared their priorities for a challenging year ahead. They joined leaders from business and civil society and spoke on the global economic outlook, inequality, healthy futures, climate and resilience.

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Latin America Leaders See Opportunities for Economic and Social Growth in 2022

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Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Latin American leaders, speaking on the third day of the World Economic Forum’s virtual Davos Agenda 2022, expressed optimism for the region’s economic outlook in the coming year.

Latin America posted a solid economic recovery in 2021 and will most likely post moderate growth in 2022, as many countries continue to implement fiscal, social and health policies for a sustainable recovery from the pandemic. The region was one of the hardest-hit by COVID-19 but has turned things around with successful ongoing vaccination programmes.

Ivan Duque, President of Colombia, said: “Colombia closed 2021 with positive results”, noting his country’s positive economic growth and high percentage of vaccination rates. He said the goal for 2022 is to maintain growth while, at the same time, closing the social inequality gap.

Carlos Alvarado Quesada, President of Costa Rica, said 85% of his country’s population had received a second COVID shot and that the process of vaccinating children was under way. “The main thing for Costa Rica is our vaccination drive. This is the only way to exit the health crisis,” he said.

Other countries in the region, including Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru, also highlighted the success of their vaccination campaigns. As they continue to recover from the pandemic, the leaders said they were focused on rebuilding their economies with a particular focus on the labour market, trade, attracting foreign investment and sustainable energy.

Alejandro Giammattei, President of Guatemala, said: “The challenge we have now is not only to promote growth but to turn growth into something sustainable. We need to improve the labour market and create more jobs. This will lead to better prosperity, health and education.” Generating new opportunities and ensuring economic benefits would reach all parts of society which, he pointed out, would also curb migration. “The only thing that stops a person is a wall of prosperity,” he said.

Guillermo Lasso, President of the Republic of Ecuador, highlighted the need for governments to commit to ethics and principles. “We need economic and inclusive growth within the rule of law and programmes that promote new opportunities. It is not just about economic growth but about quality of life and social cohesion.”

José Pedro Castillo Terrones, President of the Republic of Peru, said his priority was economic reforms, noting that his government has invested $10 billion in strategic areas such as education, health and transport, and recently signed an infrastructure bill that will lead to more jobs. “We also want to invest in energy and natural gas, especially in transportation, so the entire country is connected,” he added.

The leaders agreed that connecting the region is key to Latin America’s future outlook. Several of the countries, including Ecuador and Guatemala, have signed new trade agreements with Mexico, indicating that it will open up free trade in the Pacific and their economies to foreign investment. “Integration is important,” President Giammattei said. “It reflects tighter and more interaction that enables us to improve the economic situation.”

The environment is another area that has seen increased regional cooperation. Ecuador recently signed a decree to expand a new marine reserve and protect an area north of the Galapagos Islands. The expanded area will eventually link the Galapagos with Panama’s Coiba islands, Colombia’s Malpelo and Costa Rica’s Coco islands. “When it comes to the environment, we need to have better integration, especially regarding biodiversity and climate change,” President Alvarado said.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, President, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), stressed the importance of public-private partnerships in helping to achieve social and environmental goals. Regional integration mechanisms, such as the IDB, can provide funds to help Latin American countries build their post-pandemic recovery as well as back priorities ranging from healthcare and digitalization to climate change action, supply chains and education.

“The pandemic created unprecedented challenges, but it also opened historic opportunities for Latin America, especially in areas including digitalization, supply chains, SMEs, gender equality and climate action, and we are proud to be there, focused on helping countries seize those opportunities,” he said.

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India: West Bengal Gets $125 Million to Help Citizens Access Social Protection Services

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The World Bank’s Executive Board of Directors today approved a $125 million loan to the Government of West Bengal to support the state’s efforts to help poor and vulnerable groups access social protection services.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to focus on building capabilities of state governments to deliver inclusive and equitable social protection in times of crisis. India’s eastern state of West Bengal runs more than 400 programs that provide social assistance, care services, and jobs. Most of these services are offered through an umbrella platform called Jai Bangla. The West Bengal Building State Capability for Inclusive Social Protection Operation will support these interventions at the state level, with particular focus on vulnerable groups such as women, tribal and scheduled caste households and the elderly, as well as households in the state’s disaster-prone coastal regions.

A recent survey found that while food and in-kind transfers reach most poor and vulnerable households in West Bengal, the coverage of cash transfers is weak. Access to social pensions by elderly, widows and disabled persons, in particular, is also weak due to cumbersome application processes and lack of automated systems for application and eligibility verification.

Over the next four years, the operation will help strengthen the state’s capability to expand coverage and access to social assistance and to deliver cash transfers for the poor and vulnerable through a consolidated social registry.

“With its fast-growing urban population and pockets of urban poor, West Bengal has recognized the need to move from a fragmented, scheme-based social protection system to providing an integrated basket of social protection benefits and services to its most vulnerable citizens,” said Junaid Ahmad, the World Bank’s Country Director in India. “The project will support and strengthen the state’s capability in this area to ensure that it can deliver social protection services — both cash and in-kind — to all its vulnerable citizens.”  

West Bengal faces challenges related to manual data entry, inconsistent beneficiary data across departments, and lack of data storage and data exchange protocols. The operation will help digitize the state’s unified delivery system, the Jai Bangla platform, to help consolidate disparate social assistance programs and speed the delivery of social pensions to vulnerable and poor households.  

The project will also support the creation of a tele-consultation network for social care services, complemented by a cadre of case management workers who can help households with advice on eldercare and links to health services and facilities.

It will also create an institutional platform to improve coordination and effectiveness of government interventions to address the state’s low participation of women in the labor force.

“Lack of coordination among departments leads to duplication of efforts in service delivery. The project will assist in overall system improvements, helping to significantly improve the capacity of the state government to identify beneficiaries faster, track expenditures, and plan and monitor benefit delivery for the vulnerable,” said Shrayana Bhattacharya, Qaiser M. Khan and Ambrish Shahi, World Bank’s task team leaders for the project.

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