Article: We need to think of the future in fairer terms: ILO’s Dagmar Walter

Strategic HR

We need to think of the future in fairer terms: ILO’s Dagmar Walter

In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Dagmar Walter, Director, ILO Decent Work Technical Support Team for South Asia and Country Office for India shares some insights on the impact of COVID-19 on jobs and how employers, associations, and economies can work together to improve the future of the job market.
We need to think of the future in fairer terms: ILO’s Dagmar Walter

Dagmar Walter has spent over 20 years of her career with ILO, worked in several regions and duty stations across Africa, Europe, the Americas, and now Asia. Contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, she strives to foster office efficiency and team spirit for integrated technical assistance to ILO constituents in collaboration with stakeholders and development partners. Key areas include tackling employment and social protection challenges from an international labor rights perspective, shaping the “future of work we want” through effective social dialogue. Prior to her ILO career, Walter worked with international development and human rights, as Consultant and Deputy Representative to the various UN human rights bodies in Geneva. Walter holds a Master of Public Administration from the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration (IDHEAP).

Here are the excerpts of the interview.

Between April-June 2020, the world lost almost 400 million full-time jobs due to the pandemic, according to ILO. How can we rebuild and reimagine jobs amid the coronavirus crisis for businesses to stay future-ready?

Actually, the situation is much worse. In our last report on the impact of the pandemic published in September, we have estimated that the working hour losses for the second quarter of 2020 were thought to reach 17.3 percent of the global working hours, equivalent to 495 million full-time jobs (based on a 48-hour working week). Lower-middle-income countries are hardest hit, with a decline in working hours of 23.3 percent (240 million full-time equivalent jobs). 

With so much uncertainty, it’s difficult to predict the future. We estimated that the labor market recovery during the second half of 2020 will be slow and uncertain. Under a pessimistic scenario, which assumed a second wave of the pandemic, working losses could remain as high as 11.9 percent, equivalent to 340 million full-time jobs. 

In any case, even in an optimistic scenario, which assumes a faster recovery for workers, global working hours would not return to the pre-crisis level by the end of 2020.

Right now, rebuilding means protecting jobs and ensuring that economies do not sink any deeper than they already have.

At the same time, we must look ahead to ensure we build back better, which means putting equality and environmental sustainability at the center of the recovery phase. 

The impact of COVID-19 on work is far more profound than we think it is. How can employers, associations, and economies work together to improve the future of the job market? Do you already see work in this direction?

Working together is indeed the key.

A job-rich recovery towards a better and fairer future of work will require not only continuing measures to keep the pandemic under control but also an appropriate sequencing of policy interventions to restart work and workplaces.

And the only way to reach this goal is through social dialogue. 

For example, ILO in India has engaged with members of Employers and Workers for the ‘Establishment of Enterprise level COVID-19 Task Forces’. Members have agreed to promote a bipartite dialogue on safety in resuming economic activities at the enterprise level. With support from the ILO, All India Organization of Employers is setting up a help-desk to provide guidance to Medium Scale Enterprises on business sustainability. The organization is also supporting the employer’s organization to widen their reach, so the smaller businesses can benefit from the resources and guidance to cope with this pandemic. 

To fight the COVID-19 crisis, countries have taken extraordinary measures. The policy mix varied across these countries, but a large part of the fiscal response took the form of deferrals and waivers of tax, social security contributions, and other payments, as well as offering grants, credit guarantees and wage subsidies to businesses (including SMEs), in some cases, conditional on employment retention. 

This expanded existing social protection schemes in most advanced economies for workers and vulnerable households (including unemployment benefits, sickness benefits, and social assistance), which accounted for the bulk of discretionary spending. Large conventional and unconventional monetary policy measures were also enacted very quickly to prevent a liquidity crisis. 

These are appropriate measures, which we hope will be maintained to prevent us from reaching unsustainable levels of unemployment and guarantee social protection for all. 

Do you think the new work-from-home phenomenon can transform the job market? Will this give rise to a global competition for every single job role? If employees are able to work from anywhere, do salaries get adjusted to the cost of living in the area they choose to live?

The COVID-19 crisis has greatly accelerated the changes we were already experiencing in the labor market. It is not only about teleworking; new forces are transforming the world of work.

Technological advances – artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics – will create new jobs, but those who lose their jobs in this transition may be the least equipped to seize the new opportunities. Today’s skills will not match the jobs of tomorrow and newly acquired skills may quickly become obsolete. The greening of our economies will create millions of jobs as we adopt sustainable practices and clean technologies but other jobs will disappear as countries scale back their carbon- and resource-intensive industries. 

We need to seize the opportunities presented by these transformative changes to create a brighter future and deliver economic security, equal opportunity, and social justice – and ultimately reinforce the fabric of our societies. Forging this new path requires committed action on the part of governments as well as employers’ and workers’ organizations. They need to reinvigorate the social contract that gives working people a just share of economic progress, respect for their rights, and protection against risk in return for their continuing contribution to the economy. 

As more organizations are embracing technologies to adapt to the new normal, do you think the future of work will be tech-centric or people-centric?

In some cases, technology has improved work-life balance, reducing commuting time, and increasing worker’s autonomy to organize their time. But it has also led to longer hours, increased ambiguity between paid work and personal time that requires people to be constantly available, all of which are associated with higher levels of stress. Looking forward, as these new forms of work are likely to intensify, working time regulations will need to reflect these new realities in an effort to harness the opportunities and benefits that technology offers, as well as address any potential downsides and risks to well-being. 

At the ILO, we advocate for a human-centered approach for the future of work that strengthens the social contract by placing workers’ rights and the needs, aspirations, and rights of all people at the heart of economic, social, and environmental policies. This approach consists of three areas of action: strengthening the capacities of all people to benefit from the opportunities of a changing world of work; strengthening the institutions of work to ensure adequate protection of all workers; and promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

The effects of COVID-19 are taking a disproportionate toll on women in the labor market, as the sectors with high rates of female employment are experiencing heavier job losses. Do you think the long-term impact of the pandemic will have a disproportionate effect on women?

The COVID-19 crisis is indeed disproportionately affecting women workers in many ways and there is a risk of losing some of the gains made in recent decades and exacerbating gender inequalities in the labor market. 

The severe impact of the pandemic on women workers relates to their over-representation in some of the economic sectors worst affected by the crisis, such as accommodation, food, sales, and manufacturing. Globally, almost 510 million or 40 percent of all employed women work in the four most affected sectors. Moreover, women are heavily engaged in frontline occupations in the health-care sector, they have suffered disproportionally from job loss and reduced hours, and they often face a heavy burden at home during lockdowns. 

India already has one of the world’s lowest rates of female labor force participation, which declined from 32.2 percent in 2005 to 20.8 percent in 2018. The pandemic has made things worse. India-Rapid assessment of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on employment done by the ILO estimates that 181 million people in households, mostly women, engaged in domestic duties or unpaid family business, are bearing the brunt of the increased care and work burden. 

There are ways to ensure that women’s job prospects are not damaged long-term by the COVID-19 crisis, such as: promoting Public Employment Services (PES) that focus on helping women find jobs in essential production and services; improving the working conditions for health, care, and other essential workers; strengthening family-friendly working-time arrangements; increasing the participation and representation of different groups of women in decision-making bodies, and lastly, by promoting employment policies that pro-actively counterbalance the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on women. 

What are some of the top questions that leaders need to ask to prepare for the future of work? What leadership traits will businesses need most to get from the 'new normal' to a 'better normal'?

We need to think outside the box because nobody knows what the new normal will be. One thing is clear; we cannot let our decisions be dictated by the constraints imposed by the pandemic rather than our choices and preferences. 

We’ve heard this before. The mantra which provided the mood music of the crash of 2008-2009 was that once the vaccine to the virus of financial excess had been developed and applied, the global economy would be safer, fairer, more sustainable. But that didn’t happen. The old normal was restored with a vengeance and those on the lower echelons of labor markets found themselves even further behind. 

We have before us the task of building a future of work, which tackles the injustices that the pandemic has highlighted, together with the permanent and no longer postponable challenges of climate, digital and demographic transition. 

This is what defines the better normal that has to be the lasting legacy of the global health emergency of 2020.

India and other South Asian countries have collectively lost 110 million jobs in Q2 of 2020. What's your advice for business leaders to rebuild the job market and prepare the youth for the future of work as they come out of the pandemic?

What we’ve said in our latest report about the incidence of the pandemic is that Southern Asia has lost a number of working hours equivalent to 110 million jobs for the second quarter of 2020 (a decline of 17.9%). 

The youth are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Between 10 and 15 million youth jobs (full-time equivalent) may be lost across 13 countries in Asia and the Pacific in 2020, according to our newest report for the region. In Cambodia, Fiji, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand, youth unemployment rates are expected to reach at least double the 2019 estimates. 

According to our estimates, one of the reasons young people in the region face greater labor market disruption and job losses than adults is that nearly half of them (more than 100 million) were employed in the four sectors hardest hit by the crisis: the wholesale and retail trade and repair; manufacturing; rental and business services; and accommodation and food services. Young women are overrepresented in three of the four most affected sectors, particularly in accommodation and food services.

That’s why the ILO has called for the adoption of urgent, large-scale, and targeted measures to generate jobs for youth, keep education and training on the track, and to minimize future scarring of more than 660 million young people in the region. 

More generally, actual labor market outcomes for the future will depend on the choices countries will make, as well as on the pandemic’s future trajectory. The decisions taken in the near future are likely to have long-lasting implications for the world of work. 

A number of key challenges will have to be addressed. We have to find the right balance and sequence of health and economic and social policy interventions to produce optimal sustainable labor market outcomes and implement policy interventions on the necessary scale at a time when resources are increasingly constrained. 

We need to support vulnerable and hard-hit groups and generating fairer labor market outcomes. The pandemic has laid bare some of the worst deficits and inequities of the world of work and made them worse. Unless explicit attention is paid to improving the position of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, the recovery processes could aggravate existing injustices. 

Lastly, we need to secure international solidarity, especially for emerging and developing countries. The rhetoric of the need for a global response to the global crisis of COVID-19 needs to be translated into concrete measures to assist countries with limited fiscal space, in particular through multilateral action to deliver concessional finance and debt relief.

According to Guy Ryder, the social and economic impact of COVID-19 is being felt hardest by informal workers and by enterprises in high-risk sectors. It has exposed the frailties and inequalities of our societies. In that case, how do we build a better normal that supports the most vulnerable first?

The world needs to strive towards a better normal to address high and rising levels of inequality that erode the very foundations of our economies and societies. We know that employment policies, wage policies, social protection policies, as well as fiscal policies are critical in addressing inequalities.

We need to rethink our fight against inequality. With that purpose in mind, we have to build a universal and comprehensive social protection system, including a solid social protection floor. At the ILO, we can build on the ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation (No. 202), adopted in 2012, that provides an outcome-oriented framework that is based on human rights principles and international labor standards but leaves room for countries to reach these objectives through different means. 

Reconstruction cannot be done at the expense of the most vulnerable population. If we can’t rethink the future in fairer terms we will have lost the battle against the pandemic twice over. We must take advantage of the extreme circumstances in which we find ourselves to rethink a much fairer model that takes into account the mistakes of the past.

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Topics: Strategic HR

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