How the Pandemic Changed the Way We Think About Quality Jobs

Informal workers are hard to reach with government support. Photo: ADB
Informal workers are hard to reach with government support. Photo: ADB

By Paul Vandenberg, Helen Osborne

The discourse on quality jobs and decent work has changed since the onset of the pandemic. This transition has provided key insights and policy implications.

The pandemic has had an impact on how we think about employment, the ‘discourse’ on decent work and quality jobs. That discourse ranges from how to support workers in a downturn and prioritize jobs in a recovery, to potentially more profound changes in the future of work.

The impact on the discourse is not only about new ideas. It is also about being more aware of – thinking differently about – issues relating to concepts of quality jobs that existed before COVID-19 struck. Here are five ways that this important discussion has been affected by the pandemic.

First, jobs can be prioritized in a downturn. Early in the pandemic, governments realized that lockdown measures, based on the need for social distancing, would significantly disrupt labor markets. Mobility restrictions stopped people from travelling to work and many businesses were forced to close. The dual supply and demand shock led to losses in global working-hours in 2020 that were four times greater than during the financial crisis in 2009.

In response, governments in developing countries in Asia delivered an unprecedented level of support for employment that combined wage subsidies, worker retention schemes, social protection, and skills development. While employment measures were adopted in other crises, the focus was on shoring up financial institutions and reviving credit liquidity. Supporting jobs has provided an economic lifeline during the pandemic and can also boost recovery. For example, by upskilling people in emerging sectors and occupations, and assisting business to hire vulnerable workers.  

Second, informal workers constitute a “missing middle” that are hard to reach with support. As governments (and development partners) sought ways to support people from income loss, they turned to existing programs. These could be expanded in countries with stronger pre-existing capacity, by topping up or increasing coverage, especially through digital provision.

Poor households could be supported through existing channels of social assistance, whereas help for formal workers could be channeled through programs to enterprises (unemployment insurance, wage subsidies, and retention schemes). Between very poor households and formal workers are informal workers who are not poor enough to be included in social assistance, and yet are not attached enough to receive benefits through an employer. They constitute a missing middle for which channels of assistance did not exist and need to be created.

For most workers in the region, working from home is not a possibility.

Third, the location of work is increasingly flexible – but only for some. Where possible, the place of work shifted from office to home, which pushed the boundaries of digitalization for remote work (as well as education). How hybrid working evolves will depend in part on how people and businesses can manage issues of “time sovereignty” – enjoying the benefits of flexibility but struggling with the costs of not being able to switch off.

Yet for most workers in the region, working from home is not a possibility; less than 40% of workers in advanced economies, and much less than half of that in many developing ones can conduct their work at home. New “situational” inequalities in the labor market have emerged – with ‘frontline’ or ‘essential’ workers and the working poor unable to stay safe at home. As a result, how to guarantee workers’ rights may take more prominence.

Fourth, the deep and persistent structural divides in the labor market – for youth, women, informal workers, and others – have been highlighted. The pandemic has shone a light on the most vulnerable groups in the labor force. Seeing how the pandemic has affected certain cohorts more has brought new understanding of the barriers they already faced.

Pre-existing disparities among these vulnerable workers were exacerbated. In part these groups were concentrated in the sectors hardest hit by job and worktime losses, and social support was also difficult for them to access.  In other words, new situational inequalities brought on by the pandemic have combined with existing structural divides. As a result, effective vulnerability targeting is needed in the design of labor market assistance.

Fifth, women experienced an increase in the burden of unpaid household work. The pandemic disrupted the configuration of so many households – (male) workers doing their jobs from home, students learning at home, parents teaching children, the healthy caring for the sick. Men might have been closer to seeing (and appreciating) the work done by females in their household, but in fact it was women who disproportionately took up the additional unpaid responsibilities.

Worse, domestic violence against women intensified. Again, pre-existing gender inequalities in labor markets have become clearer. At the least, the pandemic has hopefully increased awareness of thinking about employment in terms of both the paid economy and the unpaid economy.

Understanding changes in the discourse can help identify priorities in labor market recovery planning, and then inform relevant measures. The five issues raised above have direct policy implications. First, governments should be ready with work retention schemes when the next crisis hits. That, of course, depends on subsequent assessment of the effectiveness of polices in the current crisis. Second, many countries need to build systems of social protection for the missing middle of informal workers.

Third, labor protection is needed for platform, gig, and other workers who do not have a specific place of work or a standard employer-employee relationship. Fourth, existing structural vulnerabilities, which were exacerbated by the pandemic, require targeted interventions to reach specific cohorts including women, youth, and the poor. And fifth, increased gender-based violence requires a whole-of-society approach to change attitudes and provide redress and refuge for women.  

Overall, deepening the discourse on decent work and quality jobs – to affect future policy – may be one positive to come from the crisis affecting Asia’s workforce.