UN labour arm ILO warns of ‘lost lockdown generation’


The coronavirus pandemic wiped out 114 million jobs and 8.8 percent of global working hours, equal to 255 million full-time jobs, in 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic wiped out 8.8 percent of global working hours, equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs, causing a crisis of unprecedented inequality and threatening the return to the labour market of a generation of women, young workers and low-skilled employees, the United Nations’ labour arm warned on Monday.

Global labour income fell by an estimated $3.7 trillion in 2020, or 4.4 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) of 2019, according to the International Labour Organization’s report on COVID-19 and the world of work (PDF).

“Last year was a jobs crisis of unprecedented magnitude – around four times larger than what happened during the global financial crisis,” Sher Verick, head of the Employment Strategies Unit at the ILO’s Employment Policy Department, told Al Jazeera.

The ILO estimates that the global decline in employment was around 114 million in 2020 compared to 2019.

It also underscores that millions of more people suffered a substantial cut in their working hours, causing a crisis of income. In other words, while millions of workers around the world are still technically employed, their working hours have been curtailed so severely that they struggle to make ends meet and afford the basics like food and shelter.

The ILO found that the Americas and Europe and Central Asia suffered working-hour losses more than twice as large as those in other regions, due to the restrictions and lockdowns instituted in the beginning of 2020 to help stem COVID-19’s spread.

Lost, lockdown generation: Women, young workers, and the low-skilled

Women, young people, and low-skilled workers are finding themselves in a particularly tough spot. The ILO found that these groups are at highest risk of long-term economic hardship, dragged out periods of unemployment and even being shut out of the labour market altogether.

People waiting in line outside a soup kitchen in Buenos Aires, Argentina [File: Agustin Marcarian/Reuters]

Job losses for young people in 2020 hit 8.7 percent compared to 3.7 percent for adults. And the ILO found that no matter the region, women are more likely than men to drop out of the labour force.

“The income losses are relatively large for women, young people, the low-skilled and the self-employed,” Verick said. “There is a real risk of a lost lockdown generation.”

Already in a labour crunch prior to the pandemic, young people now find themselves increasingly shut out of the labour market.

“A lot of young people have become inactive or dropped out of the labour force because they were contained during the crisis, and unable to go out to look for work,” Verick said.

Young people and women are also likelier than other groups to work in the service sectors, which includes tourism, hotels, and the restaurant and bar industry – all fields nearly decimated by months-long lockdowns.

A woman waits in line at the temporary unemployment office in Frankfort, Kentucky, the United States [File: Bryan Woolston/Reuters]

The ILO is urging governments around the world to invest in bolstering labour participation. For young people, this could mean access to training programmes that will gear them towards working in growing fields such as tech and finance.

But of course, one or two sectors cannot absorb the losses of hundreds of millions of jobs.

And while there is some optimism about a sturdy and snappy jobs recovery in 2021, that forecast can change quickly. The effectiveness of coronavirus vaccine roll-outs, the impact of the new coronavirus variant, and governments’ ability to adapt to a new era with proper policy all remain to be seen.

“Countries have done a lot to try to keep their economies from collapsing, whether through monetary and fiscal policy or subsidies,” Verick said. “Now governments must look at how to promote investments that spur real job creation.”

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