A worker wearing protective gear disinfects a traditional market in Indonesia on March 25, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK – The coronavirus pandemic is expected to wipe out labor equivalent to that performed by 195 million full-time workers around the world from this month to June, the International Labor Organization said on Tuesday (April 7), calling for swift policy action and open trade regimes to support jobs.

Meanwhile, those who continue to work in public spaces face significant health and economic risks. Far more women than men are exposed to such risks in the health sector.

“Workers and businesses are facing catastrophe, in both developed and developing economies,” said ILO director-general Guy Ryder in a press statement. “We have to move fast, decisively, and together. The right, urgent, measures, could make the difference between survival and collapse.”

In its latest assessment of the coronavirus pandemic and fast-spreading lockdowns, the United Nations agency estimated that working hours in Asia and the Pacific would decline by 7.2 percent from April to June – the equivalent of 125 million workers, assuming a 48-hour work week.

In mid-March, the ILO had projected that the pandemic could cost the world some 25 million jobs this year, out of a total of 3.3 billion.

“There is a high risk that the increase in the global number of unemployed at the end of 2020 will be significantly higher than the initial projection,” it said on Tuesday, calling this the worst global crisis since World War II. “The production losses for many enterprises are also likely to be devastating and long-lasting, especially in developing countries where the fiscal space for economic stimulation is restricted.”

A lot will depend on how quickly the economy will recover in the second half of the year, and how effective policy measures boost labour demand, it said.

Across South-east Asia, including in Singapore, entertainment spots and many retail shops deemed non-essential by governments have been shuttered to get people to stay home and limit the spread of Covid-19.

The ILO estimates that 81 per cent of the global workforce live in countries with compulsory or recommended closures. Sectors hardest hit include accommodation and food services, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade – labour-intensive trades that employ millions of often low-paid, low-skilled workers. In Asia and the Pacific, 37.9 percent of employment is in these sectors.

Meanwhile, women make up about 70 percent of the labour force involved in human health and social work who face serious risk of contracting the virus at their workplace. These include nurses, doctors, workers in residential care facilities and laundry and cleaning staff.

The ILO called for immediate support for the most affected groups, as well as targeted measures like cash transfers in countries with huge numbers of informal workers. Production can be redirected to alternative employment, like the making of personal protective equipment. Formal workers should be supported against sliding into the informal sector, where there are fewer protections.

Policy action has been slow in some countries, ILO noted, observing that some rescue packages “seem too small to serve all needs”.

“As the crisis spreads to low- and middle-income countries, similar (or even greater) responses will be necessary,” it said. “Immediate relief measures will be needed for enterprises and workers operating in the informal economy.”

“Open trade regimes, stable international capital markets and international liquidity would help shore up those efforts.”

The poorest countries with little fiscal means will need access to concessional financing, grants and debt relief, alongside immediate access to health supplies and expertise, it said.


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