This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 9 - 15, 2015.
OVER the eight years since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, the ranks of the unemployed have swollen to over 200 million worldwide. That number captures only a fraction of those who remain vulnerable and insecure, since more than four-fifths of the global workforce are outside the formal sector, with poor access to unemployment or other traditional social security benefits.
In order to survive in the absence of social protection, unemployment is not an option for most poor people in the world. Instead, their fate is more likely to be that of the working poor — of low incomes due to underemployment, low productivity or limited survival options. According to the latest estimates of the World Bank, the number of extreme poor (living on no more than US$1.25 per capita a day) declined from 1.93 billion in 1981 to 1.91 billion in 1990 and to 1.01 billion in 2011, and is projected to be 835.5 million in 2015.
With the worsening global economic slowdown, especially following the collapse of agricultural commodity prices since late 2014, many wonder whether the bases for the bank’s projections make sense. Evidently, the economic growth the global economy enjoyed in the half decade before 2008 did not bring enough jobs in terms of quantity or quality, catalysing the “jobless growth” discourse.
Briefly, in 2009, significant resources were deployed by rich countries to save their financial systems, reflate their economies and strengthen social safety nets. But only a few rich countries have eschewed excessive fiscal austerity. Apparently, successful expansionary monetary measures by the US Federal Reserve have been belatedly emulated by other rich countries with mixed consumers.
Beyond the rising number of the unemployed and underemployed, the conditions of many of those employed have been deteriorating as well. Globally, informal employment and short-term contracts, which give workers few entitlements and little security in their jobs, are becoming the norm for far too many.
Outsourcing and subcontracting have become more common, causing more insecurity for workers, now dubbed the “precariat”. Such worsening employment conditions have been taking place in many countries, especially for workers with low education and skills.
National policies aimed at counteracting these trends and lowering unemployment have had limited success at best. In their desire to remain or become competitive, governments and employers around the world have taken many steps to increase labour market flexibility, thus increasing insecurity among most workers. Such labour market flexibility has exacerbated economic insecurity and inequality, undermining prospects for decent work.
Meanwhile, the employment share of the service sector in total global employment exceeded the share of agriculture over a decade ago. For decades now, the world has seen employment increasingly dominated by the service sector, in which many jobs are low-paying and precarious, and not covered by formal social security provisions. Thus, entitlement to unemployment benefits has ceased to be a social right for many in the developed world.
Still elusive for the working poor, the goal of decent work for all, introduced by the International Labour Organisation in 1999, means productive, rewarding and secure occupations with fair income and social protection for the employed and their families. Decent work implies equality of opportunities and treatment, and offers good prospects for both personal development and social inclusion. It ensures freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in decisions that affect their lives.
Strategies promoting productive employment and decent work must address income and other inequalities. They should promote social progress and ensure equal treatment for all regardless of gender, culture, age or national origin, as well as protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Policies should ensure that conditions of work steadily improve, especially for the lowest-paid and those facing the most unacceptable and hazardous employment conditions.
Governments should employ those needed to provide basic services, including for infrastructure construction and maintenance as well as for social services, expected by the people and needed to ensure human resources for sustainable development. Greater incentives are needed to encourage private investments while better regulations can help improve employment opportunities.
Civil society and the private sector can play vital roles in promoting decent work for all. Governments and the private sector should step up efforts to promote corporate social responsibility to help realise decent work for all. Through full employment and decent work, the benefits of economic recovery and growth can be better shared within as well as among countries.
Ultimately, people will judge changes by what they bring to their lives. Secure and decent employment is surely on top of most personal agendas, and should also be national and international priorities. Decent work is the surest way for the poor to escape poverty, and must therefore be a priority of any serious effort to reduce hunger and poverty on a sustained basis.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram is the coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and received the 2007 Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought