The global organisations of the UN system estimate that by 2022 there will be more than 207 million unemployed people, and that more than 800 million men and women around the world do not earn enough to lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.
By Eduardo Camín
Between so many challenges, reports, conferences, between so many goals set by the United Nations, and so many debates, between despair and hope, the lives of millions of workers around the world are passing by. While despair teaches us that “this is not the way to go on”, despair reminds us that in capitalism “this is the way to go on indefinitely”. José Ortega y Gasset said that “living is nothing more than dealing with the world”.
We have reached an era in which social techniques are so complex and effective that the manipulation of validity can be achieved, beyond the passage of time, and what we are trying to do is to encourage reflection on those indicators that make it possible to verify progress in terms of employment and improvement of livelihoods within the framework of a process of sustainable and inclusive development, without claiming an ethical assessment, however legitimate and legitimate it may be to express it.
The reality is that today the global organisations of the UN system estimate that by 2022 there will be more than 207 million unemployed people, and that more than 800 million men and women around the world do not earn enough to lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.
The desire to be equitable and the concern to respect the truth impel us to mark certain accusatory findings, between the eternal promises and the reality of the people. It is likely to take years to repair this damage, and there could be long-term consequences for labour force participation, household incomes, social cohesion and, possibly, political cohesion.
The dominant discourse has long told us that there can be no real recovery of all factors without a broad-based labour market recovery. And, to be sustainable, this recovery must be based on the principles of decent work, including health and safety, equality, social protection and social dialogue.
It is an objective and undisguisable fact that for many years we have been sold this discourse of dubious pragmatism, exercised by the warlords, i.e., the major Western powers, who in their G7 consolidate their plans and manage the agendas of a world of promises without horizons, entering the most tortuous labyrinths of lies, infamy and war.
The ideological apparatuses of the system construct an ideal of “demanding and insatiable” desire, while over the years, especially with the advance of neoliberalism, the standard of living of workers has been reduced and the youth has been condemned to precarious work. Our concern has been and is to approach the current reality, which is marked by the crisis. The importance of the issues at stake, at this historical crossroads, are obvious.
Convergent and harmful elements
If we evaluate the policies followed to face the crossroads, we must agree – at the risk of simplifying the argument – that there have been at least three convergent and disastrous elements: the first is the perpetuation of the concept generated by neoliberal economic policies that have placed the emphasis on reducing the public deficit rather than on the recovery of economic activity.
Secondly, and as a consequence of the above, there has been a sharp reduction in the human and material resources allocated to the public services that the state should provide, dismantling the factors of social cohesion and integration that they are, while at the same time favouring their privatisation.
And thirdly, an unusual attack on the popular movement (trade unions and civil associations), from political, economic and media circles, which, although nothing new, has taken on a more aggressive tone.
We are experiencing a crisis caused initially by “permitted” speculation in the financial and real estate markets, but also in the raw materials markets – not only oil but also basic foodstuffs – which are condemning a large part of the world’s population to unemployment and poverty.
And the first global political responses of cooperation in the face of these excesses of transnational corporations and markets, which seemed to signal – in the G20 agreements or in the ILO’s proposal for a Global Jobs Pact – a new political scenario for the governance of globalisation, have been transformed into the hegemony of the interests of those who caused the crisis, fuelled by a war in which peace was simply vetoed.
And in this scenario of generalised cutbacks, the so-called “hegemony” of the markets over the actions of public policies is calling into question not only the legitimacy of democratically elected governments in the face of the decisions of markets and private companies, but also the viability of the economic, labour and social rights on which the coexistence of our societies is based.
In this framework, what is the reality of decent work?
The importance of decent work in achieving sustainable development is highlighted in UN Goal 8, which aims to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”. There is a real risk that, without comprehensive and concerted policy initiatives, widening inequalities and reduced overall progress in the world of work will persist, and this will be felt in a number of areas.
At every conference, at every assembly within the framework of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the need to create the conditions for decent work, a term coined more than two decades ago, is trumpeted.
As stated in the ILO’s own Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work (2019), this effort involves “placing workers’ rights and the needs, aspirations and rights of all people at the heart of economic, social and environmental policies”. But whether on this or other issues, we live in a seesaw between extreme concern and hope.
This issue, whether we like it or not, has been in the spotlight for years. The issue of decent work is a necessity, but reality shows that it is becoming pale and degraded to the point of appearing rhetorical and insincere. It will not be enough to focus solely on the recipes of capitalism, betting on economic growth and trusting that this will generate sufficient employment.
Instead, the international development agenda must design a coherent set of policies that is ultimately capable of providing productive employment and decent work for all.
The numbers we suffer from
In the meantime, we need to ground ourselves, because it is estimated that to keep pace with the growth of the global workforce, some 470 million new jobs will need to be created over the next 10 years. Yet global unemployment is projected to remain above pre-coronavirus levels until at least 2023.
At the same time, it is estimated to stand at more than 207 million unemployed people in 2022, up from 186 million in 2019. The ILO also warns that the overall effect on employment is significantly greater than these figures represent, as more than 39 million people have dropped out of the labour force: discouraged, they have stopped looking for work.
The global labour force participation rate in 2022 is projected to remain 1.2 percentage points lower than in 2019. On the other hand, there is also a need to improve conditions for the more than 800 million men and women who work but do not earn enough to lift themselves and their families above the $2 a day poverty line.
At the same time, more than 60 per cent of all workers have no employment contract at all, and only less than 45 per cent are wage earners: they are employed full-time, on an open-ended contract.
Based on current UN demographic estimates, the ILO estimated the economically active population (aged 15 and over) to reach 3.6 billion people worldwide in 2020, based on a labour force participation rate of around 63.5 per cent.
This global workforce would be composed of 2.2 billion men, assuming a male participation rate of 77 per cent, and 1.4 billion women, assuming a female participation rate of 50 per cent.
The ILO stresses the uneven impact of the crisis on labour markets, which is best understood by looking at hours of work. The data on lost working hours put in the forefront those who have become unemployed or dropped out of the labour force, as well as those who have continued to work, whether employed or self-employed, but whose working hours have been reduced as a result of the pandemic.
In some cases, the difference in working hours has been compensated through public or private employment maintenance schemes, and in others it has not. Once adjusted for population growth, employment, hours worked and labour force participation remained below pre-pandemic levels in 2021 and are expected to remain so until at least 2023.
The employment shortfall in 2021 was 92 million, and the decline in the labour force participation rate (or activity rate) relative to 2019 levels corresponds to a labour force shortfall of 67 million.
Each report to a greater or lesser extent warns of marked differences in the effects of the crisis between groups of workers and between countries. These differences are exacerbating inequalities within and between countries and weakening the economic, financial and social fabric of almost all nations, regardless of their level of development.
When capitalist society dehumanised, alienated and blurred the distinction between working time and leisure space, social relations and private life, creativity and productivity, human needs and self-security, in the service of the valorisation of capital, to the detriment of people’s well-being, a leap into the void was made.
For those who advocate a more humane, more egalitarian, more distributive capitalism, we remind them that the destructive tendencies of capitalism, which continually condition people’s subjectivity, are the product of the logic of the system itself, which is the main generator and reproducer of the suffering suffered by millions of human beings.
And that this is built on the exploitation of man by man and the destruction of his entire environment, and in this context “decent work” simply becomes an inadequate and eternal narrative.
Eduardo Camín, Uruguayan journalist accredited at the UN in Geneva. Analyst associated with the Latin American Centre for Strategic Analysis (CLAE, www.estrategia.la).