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Ensure decent work for key workers

GENEVA, Switzerland, (ILO News) – Countries need to improve the working conditions and earnings of key workers – who were essential during the COVID-19 crisis – to fully reflect their contribution to society and their importance in the daily functioning of economies, a new report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) says.

The report, World Employment and Social Outlook 2023: The value of essential work , underscores the extent to which economies and societies depend on key workers, and also how they are undervalued. The poor working conditions of key workers exacerbate employee turnover and labour shortages, jeopardizing the provision of basic services. Improvements in working conditions and greater investment in food systems, health care and other key sectors are necessary for building economic and social resilience to shocks, the report says.

Key workers can be found in eight main occupational groups covering health, food systems, retail, security, cleaning and sanitation, transport, manual, and technical and clerical occupations.

In the 90 countries where data was available, 52 percent of all employment is done by key workers, although in high-income countries, where economic activities are more diversified, the share is lower (34 percent).

During the COVID-19 crisis key workers suffered higher mortality rates than non-key workers, overall. Among different categories of key workers mortality rates varied; for example, in countries with available data, transport workers had higher mortality rates than health workers. The findings reveal the importance of occupational safety and health (OSH) protection, as well as the greater security associated with working in formal workplaces, with collective representation.

Lower wages, longer hours, and other deficits in working conditions

Across the world 29 percent of key workers are low-paid (where low paid is defined as pay that is less than two-thirds of the hourly median wage). On average, key workers earn 26 per cent less than other employees, with only two-thirds of this gap being accounted for by education and experience. In food systems, the share of low-paid key employees is particularly high, at 47 per cent, and in cleaning and sanitation it is 31 percent.

These sectors employ a large share of migrants, especially in high-income countries.

Nearly one-in-three key workers is on a temporary contract, although there are considerable country and sectoral differences. In the food industry 46 per cent are in temporary work. One-in-three employees in manual occupations and in cleaning and sanitation, are on temporary contracts.

Cleaning and security work is commonly outsourced, and other key occupations are routinely staffed with agency workers. This is particularly the case in warehousing and increasingly so in healthcare.

More than 46 percent of key employees in low-income countries work long hours. Long working hours are more common in transport, where nearly 42 percent of key workers across the globe work more than 48 hours a week. A substantial share of key workers around the world also have irregular schedules or short hours.

Nearly 60 percent of key workers in low- and middle-income countries lack some form of social protection. In low-income countries social protection is minimal, only reaching 17 percent of key workers. The picture is even bleaker for self-employed key workers in most developing countries, as they are almost entirely without social protection.

Ensuring decent work

“Healthcare workers, supermarket cashiers, delivery workers, postal workers, seafarers, cleaners, and others supplying food and necessities continued to perform their jobs, day in and day out, even at the height of the pandemic, often at great personal risk,” said ILO director-general, Gilbert F. Houngbo. “Valuing key workers means ensuring that they receive adequate pay and work in good conditions. Decent work is an objective for all workers but it is particularly critical for key workers, who provide vital necessities and services both in good times and bad.”

To ensure the continuity of essential services during future pandemics or other shocks such as natural disasters, the report recommends greater investment in the physical infrastructure, productive capacity and human resources of key sectors. Under-investment, especially in health and food systems, contributes to decent work deficits that undermine both social justice and economic resilience. Among other recommendations, the report calls for:

  • Ensuring that Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) systems cover all branches of economic activity and all workers, with clear duties and rights specified, through collaboration between government, workers’ and employers’ representatives.
  • Improving pay to compensate for key worker undervaluation and to reduce the wage gap between key and non-key employees, including through negotiated or statutory minimum wages.
  • Guaranteeing safe and predictable working hours through regulation, including collective bargaining.
  • Adapting legal frameworks so that all workers, regardless of their employment status and contractual arrangements, are covered by social protection, especially paid sick leave.
  • Increasing access to training so that key workers can carry out their work effectively and safely.

The report outlines a framework that countries can use, as part of a process of social dialogue, to identify gaps in decent work and economic resilience in respect of their key workers and essential services and to develop a national strategy to address these through strengthened policies and investment.



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