Countries need to improve the working conditions and earnings of key workers who were essential during the COVID-19 crisis to fully reflect their contributions to society and their importance in the daily functioning of economies, a new report from the International Labour Organisation 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, the report noted.
The report titled “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.
A press by the ILO noted that in the 90 countries where data was available, 52 per cent of all employment is done by key workers, although in high-income countries, where economic activities are more diversified, the share is lower (34 per cent).
“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.
“Across the world, 29 per cent 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 per cent.
“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 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,” the statement read in part.
ILO also said long working hours are more common in transport, where nearly 42 per cent of key workers across the globe work more than 48 hours a week.
“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 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.