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Food service workers.

UCLA senior food service worker Claudia Salcedo and assistant cook Evelyn Aguila work in the kitchen of the Bruin Plate Residential Dining Restaurant as they prepare Brussel sprouts to be added to meals packaged for low-income families in partnership with the Venice Family Center on December 2, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

UN Labor Agency Finds Pandemic Pushed Over 100 Million Workers Into Poverty

The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated preexisting inequalities and undermined progress on poverty reduction, gender equality, and battling child and forced labor, according to the International Labor Organization.

Jessica Corbett

Over a year after projecting that the coronavirus pandemic could have a "catastrophic" impact on the global economy and workforce, the United Nations labor agency on Wednesday revealed that the public health crisis pushed more than 100 million workers worldwide into poverty.

"Recovery from Covid-19 is not just a health issue. The serious damage to economies and societies needs to be overcome too."
—Guy Ryder, ILO

The new report (pdf), entitled World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2021 (WESO Trends), also warns of the "real risk that—absent comprehensive and concerted policy efforts—the Covid-19 crisis will leave behind a legacy of widened inequality and reduced overall progress in the world of work across multiple dimensions."

Worryingly, the International Labor Organization (ILO) report shows that "the recovery process is likely to be both incomplete and uneven," said Guy Ryder, the agency's director-general, in a video about the findings.

"Incomplete because the damage done will not be fully repaired by the end of 2022, we will still have a major jobs shortfall," Ryder explained. "Uneven because it's the rich countries, the high-income countries, which are the best placed—because they have vaccines, because they have the fiscal means to do so—to recover more quickly."

"So the danger is a bit of a two-speed recovery," he continued, noting that not only workers in poor countries but also those in vulnerable sectors globally could be left behind. "We need a different option. We need a human-centered recovery, which will prevent that from happening."

The ILO found that relative to 2019, an additional 108 million workers worldwide are now moderately or extremely poor—meaning their families must survive on less than $3.20 per person each day. The report says that "five years of progress towards the eradication of working poverty have been undone."

The pandemic has "highlighted the vulnerable situation of migrant workers" and undermined recent progress on gender equality, the report adds. According to Agence France-Presse, Ryder told reporters that the ongoing crisis has also negatively affected efforts to end child and forced labor.

"Looking ahead, the projected employment growth will be insufficient to close the gaps opened up by the crisis," WESO Trends warns. "To make matters worse, many of the newly created jobs are expected to be of low productivity and poor quality."

The U.N. agency projects that the pandemic-induced "jobs gap" will hit 75 million this year and fall to 23 million next year. The gap in working hours—which accounts for the jobs gap and hours reductions—is expected to be the equivalent of 100 million full-time jobs in 2021 and 26 million full-time jobs in 2022.

"As the overall economic situation starts to improve and pandemic-related restrictions are lifted, large numbers of people who were previously inactive in the labor market will enter the labor force again," the report says. "However, owing to the lack of sufficient jobs, the global unemployment headcount will remain elevated throughout 2021 and 2022—at 220 million and 205 million unemployed, respectively."

While the most affected regions in the first half of this year have been Latin America and the Caribbean as well as Europe and Central Asia, ILO points out that "the pandemic further exposed racial and ethnic inequality in North America." In the United States specifically, the crisis illuminated "inequalities in health and economic outcomes, linked to entrenched structural barriers."

"Worldwide, employment in the accommodation and food services sector is estimated to have been the worst affected by the crisis," says the report. The wholesale and retail trade sector was also heavily hit, as was manufacturing and construction, which "incurred a significant decline in employment as a result of the crisis, bearing the brunt of the impact in the industry sector."

"Recovery from Covid-19 is not just a health issue. The serious damage to economies and societies needs to be overcome too," Ryder emphasized in a statement. "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."

"We need a comprehensive and coordinated strategy, based on human-centered policies, and backed by action and funding," he added. "There can be no real recovery without a recovery of decent jobs."


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