Vulnerable employment is on the rise

Cambodian fishers courtesy of ILO

The ILO has just published its World Employment and Social Outlook report. This examines the state of the global labour market. Ben Rutledge analyses its findings for us, particularly as one of this year's headlines is that vulnerable employment is on the rise.

In 2017, about 42% of workers, or 1.4 billion people worldwide, were estimated to be in vulnerable forms of employment.

The ILO predicts that this will increase, particularly in emerging economies.

Globally, the progress achieved in the past in reducing vulnerable employment has stalled. The number of vulnerable workers is projected to increase by 17 million people in 2018 and again in 2019.

Incidences of vulnerability will continue to be highest in the agriculture sector, affecting between 60 and 90% of workers. But, vulnerable and informal forms of employment are prevalent both in declining sectors (e.g. agriculture) as well as in growing sectors (e.g. market services).

The number of workers affected by poor working conditions is likely to rise highest in sub-Saharan Africa and in Southern Asia, unless significantly more progress is made in improving job quality.

Meanwhile, the gender gap remains. Women are more likely to have lower-quality jobs and lower salaries than men.

Gender roles, socio-economic constraints and personal preferences, such as unequal care responsibilities and discrimination, are cited as reasons why.

Record numbers of working poor

While extreme poverty and the number of extreme working poor is predicted to fall, globally a record number of people in poverty are in working households. Job creation alone, it seems, is no longer the answer to poverty alleviation. 

[Editor: the definition for extreme poverty changed in 2015 and is now households in which per capita consumption is less than US$1.90 per day.]

The ILO highlights why progress in tackling ‘working poverty’ – defined as having income below the poverty line – is too limited. Essentially, any progress that is being made is too slow and is not keeping up with the expanding labour force.

Furthermore, an ageing population – rising life expectancy and declining birth rates – will add further pressure to labour market challenges.

As ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said: “Even though global unemployment has stabilized, decent work deficits remain widespread: the global economy is still not creating enough jobs. Additional efforts need to be put in place to improve the quality of work for jobholders and to ensure that the gains of growth are shared equitably.”

The study makes for sober reading and underscores the importance of creating decent work, and not just relying on job creation figures as an indicator of progress in sustainable economic development.

Poorly paid work supports extreme wealth

The ILO’s conclusions appear to be backed up by findings from Oxfam, in a new report launched to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos.

While the global economy is growing, the economic inequality gap is widening the charity says. 

Oxfam’s message is clear. Dangerous, poorly paid work for the many is supporting extreme wealth for the few.

Not only that, women are in the worst work, yet almost all the super-rich are men.

What’s the answer?

It is the responsibility of governments to create more equal societies and they should start prioritizing the rights and needs of ordinary workers and the creation of decent jobs.

But governments cannot create equal societies on their own. Businesses too have major role to play in tackling inequality, by tackling discrimination in supply chains for example.

To create decent work, shared ownership of human rights and the fundamental principle of equality is required.

The UN's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) are clear on this. There is a collective responsibility to fulfill the right to equality.

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