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Slow jobs recovery and increased inequality risk long-term COVID-19 scarring

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The labour market crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and employment growth will be insufficient to make up for the losses suffered until at least 2023, according to a new assessment by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The ILO’s World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2021  (WESO Trends) projects the global crisis-induced ‘jobs gap’ will reach 75 million in 2021, before falling to 23 million in 2022. The related gap in working-hours, which includes the jobs gap and those on reduced hours, amounts to the equivalent of 100 million full-time jobs in 2021 and 26 million full-time jobs in 2022. This shortfall in employment and working hours comes on top of persistently high pre-crisis levels of unemployment, labour underutilization and poor working conditions.

In consequence, global unemployment is expected to stand at 205 million people in 2022, greatly surpassing the level of 187 million in 2019. This corresponds to an unemployment rate of 5.7 per cent. Excluding the COVID-19 crisis period, such a rate was last seen in 2013.

The worst affected regions in the first half of 2021 have been Latin America and the Caribbean, and Europe and Central Asia. In both, estimated working-hour losses exceeded eight per cent in the first quarter and six per cent in the second quarter, compared to global working-hour losses of 4.8 and 4.4 per cent in the first and second quarter, respectively.

Global employment recovery is projected to accelerate in the second half of 2021, provided that there is no worsening in the overall pandemic situation. However this will be uneven, due to unequal vaccine access and the limited capacity of most developing and emerging economies to support strong fiscal stimulus measures. Furthermore, the quality of newly created jobs is likely to deteriorate in those countries.

The fall in employment and hours worked has translated into a sharp drop in labour income and a corresponding rise in poverty. Compared to 2019, an additional 108 million workers worldwide are now categorized as poor or extremely poor (meaning they and their families live on the equivalent of less than US$3.20 per person per day). “Five years of progress towards the eradication of working poverty have been undone,” the report says, adding that this renders the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating poverty by 2030 even more elusive.

The COVID-19 crisis has also made pre-existing inequalities worse by hitting vulnerable workers harder, the report finds. The widespread lack of social protection – for example among the world’s two billion informal sector workers – means that pandemic-related work disruptions have had catastrophic consequences for family incomes and livelihoods.

The crisis has also hit women disproportionately. Their employment declined by 5 per cent in 2020 compared to 3.9 per cent for men. A greater proportion of women also fell out of the labour market, becoming inactive. Additional domestic responsibilities resulting from crisis lockdowns have also created the risk of a “re-traditionalization” of gender roles.

Globally, youth employment fell 8.7 per cent in 2020, compared with 3.7 per cent for adults, with the most pronounced fall seen in middle-income countries. The consequences of this delay and disruption to the early labour market experience of young people could last for years.

The pandemic’s impact on young people’s labour market prospects is laid out in greater detail in an ILO brief published alongside the WESO Trends. The Update on the youth labour market impact of the COVID-19 crisis  also finds that gender gaps in youth labour markets became more pronounced.

“Recovery from COVID-19 is not just a health issue. The serious damage to economies and societies needs to be overcome too. Without a deliberate effort to accelerate the creation of decent jobs, and support the most vulnerable members of society and the recovery of the hardest-hit economic sectors, the lingering effects of the pandemic could be with us for years in the form of lost human and economic potential and higher poverty and inequality,” said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder. “We need a comprehensive and co-ordinated strategy, based on human-centred policies, and backed by action and funding. There can be no real recovery without a recovery of decent jobs.”

As well as looking at working hour and direct employment losses, and foregone job growth, the WESO outlines a recovery strategy structured around four principles: promoting broad-based economic growth and the creation of productive employment; supporting household incomes and labour market transitions; strengthening the institutional foundations needed for inclusive, sustainable and resilient economic growth and development; and using social dialogue to develop human-centred recovery strategies.

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Fewer women than men will regain work during COVID-19 recovery

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Generations of progress stands to be lost on women and girls' empowerment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: ILO

Fewer women will regain jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic during the recovery period, than men, according to a new study released on Monday by the UN’s labour agency.  

In Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and at work at the core of the COVID-19 recovery, the International Labour Organization (ILO) highlights that between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 4.2 per cent globally, representing 54 million jobs, while men suffered a three per cent decline, or 60 million jobs. 

This means that there will be 13 million fewer women in employment this year compared to 2019, but the number of men in work will likely recover to levels seen two years ago. 

This means that only 43 per cent of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 69 per cent of their male counterparts. 

The ILO paper suggests that women have seen disproportionate job and income losses because they are over-represented in the sectors hit hardest by lockdowns, such as accommodation, food services and manufacturing. 

Regional differences 

Not all regions have been affected in the same way. For example, the study revealed that women’s employment was hit hardest in the Americas, falling by more than nine per cent.  

This was followed by the Arab States at just over four per cent, then Asia-Pacific at 3.8 per cent, Europe at 2.5 per cent and Central Asia at 1.9 per cent. 

In Africa, men’s employment dropped by just 0.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while women’s employment decreased by 1.9 per cent. 

Mitigation efforts 

Throughout the pandemic, women faired considerably better in countries that took measures to prevent them from losing their jobs and allowed them to get back into the workforce as early as possible. 

In Chile and Colombia, for example, wage subsidies were applied to new hires, with higher subsidy rates for women.  

And Colombia and Senegal were among those nations which created or strengthened support for women entrepreneurs.  

Meanwhile, in Mexico and Kenya quotas were established to guarantee that women benefited from public employment programmes. 

Building forward 

To address these imbalances, gender-responsive strategies must be at the core of recovery efforts, says the agency. 

It is essential to invest in the care economy because the health, social work and education sectors are important job generators, especially for women, according to ILO. 

Moreover, care leave policies and flexible working arrangements can also encourage a more even division of work at home between women and men. 

The current gender gap can also be tackled by working towards universal access to comprehensive, adequate and sustainable social protection. 

Promoting equal pay for work of equal value is also a potentially decisive and important step. 

Domestic violence and work-related gender-based violence and harassment has worsened during the pandemic – further undermining women’s ability to be in the workforce – and the report highlights the need to eliminate the scourge immediately. 

Promoting women’s participation in decision-making bodies, and more effective social dialogue, would also make a major difference, said ILO. 

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Global electricity demand is growing faster than renewables

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Renewables are expanding quickly but not enough to satisfy a strong rebound in global electricity demand this year, resulting in a sharp rise in the use of coal power that risks pushing carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector to record levels next year, says a new report from the International Energy Agency.

After falling by about 1% in 2020 due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, global electricity demand is set to grow by close to 5% in 2021 and 4% in 2022 – driven by the global economic recovery – according to the latest edition of the IEA’s semi-annual Electricity Market Report released today. The majority of the increase in electricity demand is expected to come from the Asia Pacific region, primarily China and India.

Based on current policy settings and economic trends, electricity generation from renewables – including hydropower, wind and solar PV – is on track to grow strongly around the world over the next two years – by 8% in 2021 and by more than 6% in 2022. But even with this strong growth, renewables will only be able to meet around half the projected increase in global electricity demand over those two years, according to the new IEA report.

Fossil fuel-based electricity generation is set to cover 45% of additional demand in 2021 and 40% in 2022, with nuclear power accounting for the rest. As a result, carbon emissions from the electricity sector – which fell in both 2019 and 2020 – are forecast to increase by 3.5% in 2021 and by 2.5% in 2022, which would take them to an all-time high.

Renewable growth has exceeded demand growth in only two years: 2019 and 2020. But in those cases, it was largely due to exceptionally slow or declining demand, suggesting that renewables outpacing the rest of the electricity sector is not yet the new normal.

“Renewable power is growing impressively in many parts of the world, but it still isn’t where it needs to be to put us on a path to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century,” said Keisuke Sadamori, the IEA Director of Energy Markets and Security. “As economies rebound, we’ve seen a surge in electricity generation from fossil fuels. To shift to a sustainable trajectory, we need to massively step up investment in clean energy technologies – especially renewables and energy efficiency.” 

In the pathway set out in IEA’s recent Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050, nearly three-quarters of global emissions reductions between 2020 and 2025 take place in the electricity sector. To achieve this decline, the pathway calls for coal-fired electricity generation to fall by more than 6% a year.

However, coal-fired electricity generation is set to increase by almost 5% this year and by a further 3% in 2022, potentially reaching an all-time high, according to the Electricity Market Report. Gas-fired generation, which declined 2% in 2020, is expected to increase by 1% in 2021 and by nearly 2% in 2022. The growth of gas lags that of coal because it plays a smaller role in the fast-growing economies in the Asia Pacific region and it faces competition from renewables in Europe and North America.

Since the IEA’s last Electricity Market Report in December 2020, extreme cold, heat and drought have caused serious strains and disruptions to electricity systems across the globe – in countries ranging from the United States and Mexico to China and Iraq. In response, the IEA is establishing an Electricity Security Event Scale to track and classify major power outages, based on the duration of the disruption and the number of affected customers. The Texas power crisis in February, where millions of customers were without power for up to four days because of icy weather, was assigned the most severe rating on this scale.

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COVID-19 Crisis Lowers Thailand’s Growth, Continued Support for the Poor Needed

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Thailand’s economy continues to take a heavy toll due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is projected to expand modestly at 2.2 percent in 2021, revised down from the 3.4 percent growth projected in March, according to the World Bank’s latest Thailand Economic Monitor “The Road to Recovery” published today. Continued assistance to the poor and vulnerable, including informal workers, will be necessary as COVID-19 continues to impact Thailand’s economy.

The weaker outlook reflects the impact of the ongoing third wave of the virus on private consumption, and the likelihood that international tourist arrivals will remain very low through the end of 2021. Thailand recorded 40 million tourist arrivals in 2019, but the expected number of tourist arrivals in 2021 has been revised sharply downward from a previous forecast of 4-5 million to just 0.6 million.

“The economic shock associated with COVID-19 has adversely affected employment, incomes, and poverty, but the government’s comprehensive social protection response has been impressive in mitigating its impact,” said Birgit Hansl, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand. “Thailand’s fiscal space is still sufficient to allow supporting measures to protect the poor and most in need in the months to come.”

Thailand has performed relatively well in terms of the scale and speed of its fiscal response. The government expanded what was previously a relatively modest set of cash transfer programs to implement one of the largest such responses to COVID-19 in the world. Preliminary simulations suggest that more than 780,000 additional people could have fallen into poverty in 2020 if the government had not scaled up social assistance.

“The crisis in 2020 demonstrated Thailand’s ability to leverage its robust and universal digital ID, sophisticated and interoperable digital platform, and a number of administrative databases to filter eligibility for new cash transfer programs. Going forward Thailand would need to consolidate these efforts and be better prepared to respond to crisis through setting up a social registry.” said Francesca Lamanna, Senior Economist at the World Bank.

Economic activity is not expected to return to its pre-pandemic levels until 2022, with the GDP growth rate projected to rise to 5.1 percent. However, the pace of recovery will depend on Thailand’s vaccination progress, the effectiveness of fiscal support, and the extent to which international tourism resumes. Exports of goods are expected to support the Thai economy in 2021, due to recovering global demand for automotive parts, electronics, machinery, and agricultural products. Risks are further tilted to the downside as the COVID-19 recovery might be delayed due to new COVID-19 variants becoming resistant to treatments or vaccines.

“Adequate testing-tracing-isolation and further progress on vaccinations will be necessary to avoid the need for lockdowns, spur a sustained increase in domestic mobility and consumption, and allow the country to reopen to foreign tourists,” according to Kiatipong Ariyapruchya, World Bank Senior Economist for Thailand. “In the long-term, reforms that lower trade costs and barriers could help maximize the benefits of the ongoing recovery of global economic activity.”

The report also recommends that the government will need to invest in strengthening Thailand’s social protection system. In the years to come it should be a priority to provide adequate support to vulnerable people, while ensuring that this support is targeted effectively to limit the overall fiscal burden. The crisis also further underscores the need to ensure that the social protection system covers the large informal sector at all times, not only during crises.

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