Key Workers Make up 52% of the Total Workforce Across The Globe

Prof. Sunil Goyal
May Day or International Labour Day is celebrated all over the world, including India on the 1st of May, commemorating a significant event in the history of labour rights. May Day celebrates the contribution and sacrifice of workers to and for society. This day also reminds us of the ongoing struggles for social justice and workers’ rights.

The covid-19 pandemic has made evident the extent to which societies need key workers – in both good times and bad – but also how undervalued most key jobs are, raising concerns about the sustainability of these essential activities, especially given the likelihood of future shocks. These workers produced, distributed and sold food, cleaned streets and buses to minimize the spread of the pandemic, ensured public safety, transported essential goods and workers, and cared for and healed the ill. These are the “key workers”. This calls for a revaluation of the work of key workers and greater investment in key sectors in order to more fully reflect their economic and social contributions.
Key workers provide essential goods and services that enable societies to function. Key workers can be found among eight main occupational groups: food systems workers; health workers; retail workers; security workers; manual workers; cleaning and sanitation workers; transport workers; and technicians and clerical workers. As per the ILO flagship report on World Employment and Social Outlook 2023, across the 90 countries with available data, key workers make up 52 per cent of the workforce, though the share is lower in high-income countries (34 per cent), where economic activities are more diversified. Women account for 38 per cent of all key workers globally, which is lower than their share in non-key work (42 per cent). Women constitute two thirds of key health workers and more than half of key retail workers, but they are grossly underrepresented in security and transport. High-income countries rely heavily on international migrants to perform key services in occupations like agriculture and cleaning and sanitation.
Nearly one in three key employees is on a temporary contract, though there are considerable country and sectoral differences. In food systems, key employees have a higher incidence of temporary work, at 46 per cent worldwide. But temporary employment is also prevalent in cleaning and sanitation, and manual occupations, with one in three employees holding a temporary contract. Report further reveals that more than 46 per cent of key employees in low-income countries work long hours, while a substantial share of key workers around the world has irregular schedules or short hours. Long working hours are more common in transport, where nearly 42 per cent of key workers across the globe work for more than 48 hours a week. It is also found that on average, 29 per cent of key employees are low-paid, regardless of countries’ level of development. Key employees 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. The share of low-paid employees is also high among other key occupations, such as cleaning and sanitation (31 per cent). These sectors, especially in high-income countries, employ a large share of international migrants.
The report also reveals under-representation, especially in a few key Sectors. While unionization and collective bargaining coverage are limited for many workers, the available data indicate that unionization rates in several key sectors – including food systems (9 per cent), cleaning and sanitation (13 per cent) and retail (6 per cent) – are significantly lower than average rates in developed and developing countries alike. There also exists deficits in social protection, including paid sick leave. Nearly 60 per cent of key workers in low- and middle-income countries lack some form of social protection. In low-income countries, social protection is minimal, only reaching 17 per cent of key workers. The picture is even bleaker for self-employed key workers in most developing countries, as they are almost entirely left out of social protection. These key workers are not properly trained. Fewer than 3 per cent of key workers in low- and lower-middle-income countries received training during the preceding 12 months, and this share is as low as 1.3 per cent among self-employed key workers.
To build resilience, countries should invest in the institutions of work and key sectors. The undervaluation of key work has implications beyond the individual worker. When difficult working conditions and low pay are systemic, labour shortages, high turnover and, ultimately, an inadequate provision of key services result. Thus, the resilience of key services in the face of future pandemics or other crises is dependent on investments made in these key sectors, as well as in working conditions of those who perform critical work. Investing in the institutions of work improves
working conditions. While decent work is a universal objective, it is particularly critical for key workers, given the importance of their work for the basic functioning of economies and societies as well as the widespread deficits in their working conditions. Regulation, either through statute or collective bargaining agreements, in concert with other institutions of work – workers’ and employers’ organizations, labour administration and inspection systems, and courts and tribunals – is needed to achieve the objective of Safe and healthy workplaces for all, equality of treatment and other safeguards for all contractual arrangements, safe and predictable working hours, wage policies that support the valuation of key work, extending social protection for a resilient workforce, training for an adaptive and responsive key workforce, and turning law into practice through compliance and enforcement.
Social dialogue is need of the hour to build resilience. Governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations would benefit from coming together to institute an actionable road map for identifying and addressing specific deficits that can impede the delivery of key goods and services, whether in good times or bad. Like an insurance policy, such a strategy would more than pay for itself when the next crisis hits.
Author is an Eminent Social Scientist, Columnist, and presently posted as Dean and Chairman – Board of Studies at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University of Social Sciences, Dr. Ambedkar Nagar (MHOW), Madhya Pradesh. ments. Views expressed in this article are personal.)
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