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GCC returns to growth amid high oil prices and strong responses to COVID-19

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Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) economies are expected to return to an aggregate growth rate of 2.6% in 2021, according to the latest issue of the World Bank Gulf Economic Update (GEU), “Seizing the Opportunity for a Sustainable Recovery.” The six-member GCC is composed of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

Their robust recovery, which is due to stronger oil prices and the growth of non-oil sectors, will accelerate into 2022 as OPEC+-mandated oil production cuts are phased out and higher oil prices improve business sentiment and attract additional investment. These favorable oil market conditions have shrunk fiscal and external imbalances as export earnings recover. However, the outlook in the medium-term is subject to risks from slower global recovery, renewed coronavirus outbreaks, and oil sector volatility.

The World Bank’s latest GEU report focuses on addressing the wage bill in the GCC—the amount of government spending devoted to the salaries and benefits of state employees. Well-paid, public sector jobs are part of the region’s social contract, as well the free health care, education, social security benefits, and subsidized housing and utilities which citizens are often also offered.

“With high population growth and limited options in the private sector, the wage bill has become unsustainable in some GCC countries, as it is a large part of government spending and of the economy overall,” said Issam Abousleiman, World Bank Regional Director for the GCC. “Given their improved fiscal situation, this is an opportune time for GCC governments to accelerate their reforms agenda and reach the goals they set for themselves.”

According to the report, the average GCC wage bill over the past two decades has exceeded the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, except in Qatar and the UAE. Many GCC countries have public sectors that are well within OECD norms size-wise, in terms of the numbers of employees. However, public servants are paid a wage premium of between 50–100%, which results in a high wage bill relative to the countries’ total spending and GDP.

Despite the oil price crash, spending on the wage bill and the numbers of people employed in the public sector have both risen inexorably upwards. Kuwait’s 2022 budget allocated KWD 12.6bn (about US$42bn) for salaries and benefits, or 55% of its total expenditure. Other countries in the GCC are in a similar position: Oman’s wage bill has doubled in the past decade despite efforts to cap its growth. Saudi Arabia’s allowances for civil servants rose from SAR 44bn in 2016 to SAR 148bn in 2019 and now form more than a third of the government’s total wage bill.

These high wage bills are adding excessive pressure to GCC budgets, especially in countries with fewer resources and limited fiscal buffers. In consequence, most are either introducing or expanding their tax bases, trimming back benefits, and exploring early retirement options for some staff. Rather than providing a prescriptive solution in their report, World Bank economists highlight some of the options adopted by other countries and suggest GCC countries reach consensus among stakeholders before moving forward.

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Finance

Global Policy-makers Face Complex Set of Divergent Economic Challenges in Coming Year

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From the impact of a new COVID variant to continued inflation, governments will continue to face economic challenges in 2022. In a session on the global economic outlook, policy-makers outlined their immediate and long-term actions to stabilize the global economy to business, government and civil society leaders taking part in the World Economic Forum’s virtual event, the Davos Agenda.

Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, emphasized that the response to the pandemic crisis has been anything but orthodox. “In a highly coordinated fashion, the world central banks and fiscal authorities have prevented the world falling into another great depression,” she said.

“Policy flexibility is critical in 2022 – persistent inflation, record fiscal debt levels and COVID-19 combine to present a complex obstacle course for policy-makers,” she added. In particular, vaccination rates represent a dangerous divergence between countries; more than 86 countries did not meet end-of-year vaccination targets.”

Georgieva expects the economic recovery will continue in 2022, but she cautioned: “It is losing momentum amid persistent inflation and record debt levels which now exceed $26 trillion.” More than 60% of developing countries are heading towards debt distress”, she said, more than twice as many as a few years ago.

Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, said that during the COVID-19 crisis, monetary and fiscal policies joined hands to respond exceptionally to the pandemic. “In Europe, so far, we are not seeing inflationary pressure spiral out of control. We see wages and energy prices stabilizing from the middle of the year as bottlenecks reduce and wage inflation normalizes.”

She added: “In Europe we are unlikely to see the kind of inflation increases that the US is experiencing; demand and employment participation are only just returning to the pre-pandemic levels.” She stressed that “Europe is stronger and more united than it was before the pandemic and we will act if we need to.”

Kuroda Haruhiko, Governor of Bank of Japan, said Japan has been relatively successful in minimizing the death rate from COVID-19, although the economic recovery is still lagging. “Public sector debt in Japan is now well over 200% of GDP,” he said, “but the government projects a primary surplus from 2025, hence thereafter public debt should decline.”

He was optimistic about progress so far. “The Bank of Japan’s accommodative monetary policy has been working well and the Japanese economy is now emerging from the spectre of 15 years of deflation.” He went on to say: “In Japan we expect an inflation rate of about 1% in 2022 and the Bank of Japan will continue our stimulative monetary policy”

Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Minister of Finance of Indonesia, revealed that the country should see a strong recovery in 2022. “To build on this, we are expecting more than 1% of additional GDP growth from a series of recent reforms.”

She said that Indonesia is the largest economy in the ASEAN region but “it is vulnerable to a dependence on commodities – the emphasis now is on value-added activities”. She added: “We are improving Indonesia’s investment environment with a comprehensive reform package on tax, regulation and incentives.”

Paulo Guedes, Minister of Economy of Brazil, said his country’s economy is bouncing back strongly and economic output is already above the pre-pandemic level.

“Do not underestimate Brazil’s resilience,” he said. “The country’s debt to GDP ratio has stabilized at around 80%, well less than widespread fears that debt/GDP could exceed 100%.” He pointed out that more than 3 million new jobs were created in 2021 and the government has assisted 68 million Brazilians with direct income transfers.

He was less upbeat about inflation. “Central Bankers are asleep at the wheel – inflation will be a persistent problem for the western world. Inflationary pressures will not be transitory.”

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Afghanistan: 500,000 jobs lost since Taliban takeover

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More than half a million people have lost or been pushed out of their jobs in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Wednesday.

In a warning that the economy has been “paralyzed” since the de facto authorities took control last August, ILO said that there have been huge losses in jobs and working hours.

Women have been hit especially hard.

By the middle of this year, it’s expected that job losses will increase to nearly 700,000 – with direst predictions topping 900,000 – as a result of the crisis in Afghanistan and “restrictions on women’s participation in the workplace”.

Gender gap

Women’s employment levels are already extremely low by global standards, but ILO said that they are estimated to have decreased by 16 per cent in the third quarter of 2021, and they could fall by between 21 per cent and 28 per cent by mid-2022.

“The situation in Afghanistan is critical and immediate support for stabilization and recovery is required,” said Ramin Behzad, Senior Coordinator of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for Afghanistan. “While the priority is to meet immediate humanitarian needs, lasting and inclusive recovery will depend on people and communities having access to decent employment, livelihoods and basic services.”

Hundreds of thousands of job losses have been seen in several key sectors which have been “devastated” since the takeover, ILO said.

These include agriculture and the civil service, where workers have either been let go or left unpaid. In construction, the sector’s 538,000 workers – of which 99 per cent are men – have suffered too, as major infrastructure projects have stalled.

Forces sapped

The Taliban takeover has also led to “hundreds of thousands” of Afghan security force members losing their job, said ILO, noting that teachers and health workers have been deeply impacted by the lack of cash in the economy, amid falling international donor support.

As the crisis continues to unfold, ILO explained that the Taliban capture of Kabul on 15 August, threatened hard-fought development gains achieved over the past two decades.

Domestic markets have been “widely disrupted”, the UN agency said, while productive economic activity has dropped, which has in turn driven up production costs.

At the same time, because Afghanistan’s reported $9.5 billion in assets have been frozen, “foreign aid, trade and investment…have been severely impacted”, ILO continued, pointing to cash shortages and restrictions on bank withdrawals, causing misery for businesses, workers and households.

Kids pay price

The lack of work also threatens to worsen child labour levels in Afghanistan, where only 40 per cent of children aged five to 17 years old attend school.

In absolute numbers, ILO noted that there are more than 770,000 boys and about 300,000 girls involved in child labour.

The problem is worst in rural areas – where 9.9 per cent, or 839,000 children –  are much more likely to be in child labour compared to those in urban areas (2.9 per cent or 80,000).

To support the Afghan people this year, the UN’s top priorities are to provide lifesaving assistance, sustain essential services and preserve social investments and community-level systems which are essential to meeting basic human needs.

In support of this strategy, the ILO has pledged to work with employers and trade unions to promote productive employment and decent work.

The organisation’s focus is in four key areas: emergency employment services, employment-intensive investment, enterprise promotion and skills development, while respecting labour rights, gender equality, social dialogue, social protection,elimination of child labour and disability inclusion.

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Construction PPE: What and when to use

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Personal protective equipment is essential for construction sites. Every workplace has hazards – from offices to classrooms. However, a construction site has far more hazards than most, and extra caution must be applied. PPE can help keep everyone safe and secure, even when close to a hazard factor. Your employer should provide high-quality PPE to everyone on site. When selecting equipment, use a construction PPE supplier that is CE marked.

How to use PPE

Personal protective equipment is designed to protect you from potential hazards. For example, face masks and eye goggles are worn around toxic chemicals or contaminated air. PPE must fit correctly to be as efficient and safe as possible. A loose-fitting face mask could allow dust particles to squeeze through the gaps. Or ill-fitting thermal trousers could get caught/snag on edges or trail along the ground and cause the worker to fall over. Your PPE needs to be in good condition as well – If there are holes, rips and signs of wear on your PPE, it should be immediately replaced. It is your employer’s responsibility to provide adequate PPE.

PPE is a last resort

PPE is not the only safety measure that needs to be taken. Your employer should reduce the risks on site where possible. For example, a hazardous area should be signposted, and every employee should be trained properly. Every employee should go through health and safety training alongside frequent refresher courses. All employees should be trained in using the machinery on site before they begin operating it. PPE cannot protect someone who does not know how to act safely on site.

What types of PPE are used on-site?

Protective gloves should be worn when handling heavy machinery and sharp tools. The gloves need to allow enough mobility and flexibility so the individual can continue to work. Gloves can also help you grip heavy items and protect you from cold winter conditions.

A tool lanyard is useful for when you are working at a height. The lanyard connects to your wrist so you can carry lightweight tools. For heavier tools, you can use a stronger tether point, like your waist.

High – visibility clothing should be mandatory when working, especially at night. Everyone should wear high visibility clothing on-site, so they are noticeable by moving vehicles. Depending on the weather, you could go for a vest or thick coat.

Stay safe and wear personal protective equipment on construction sites.

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