Precarious workers pushed to the edge by COVID-19

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Janine Berg, ILO Senior Economist

If you are a freelancer, who pays your sick leave? If you work in a retail store on a zero-hours contract and the store closes, are you out of luck?

Most media reports on the employment effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have focused on the possibility of lay-offs and the financial consequences for employees. There has been less discussion on what happens to those workers who are not officially laid off, but whose contracts are not renewed, whose hours are whittled to zero, or whose employment agency simply tells them sorry, there is no more work available. Depending on the country, the worker may not be covered by unemployment insurance or other critical protections, such as paid sick leave.

During the past several decades, in countries across the world, there have been important increases in the number of workers in temporary work, part-time work, temporary agency work and other forms of subcontracted labour, as well as new forms of working, such as in the gig economy, where workers are almost always classified as self-employed.

Yet, because many countries establish eligibility thresholds for social security – minimum hours worked weekly, minimum earnings, minimum number of months on the job, minimum number of contribution periods – many workers are left without adequate protections, putting them at risk. As the number of workers in diverse arrangements increases, the coverage of unemployment insurance shrinks, even in countries with well-established systems.

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In the 1990s, with diverse employment arrangements on the rise, the ILO adopted a series of international labour standards to promote the equal treatment of part-time workers, agency workers and homeworkers. Article 6 of the ILO’s Part-Time Work Convention, 1994 (No.175), for example, states that “statutory social security schemes….shall be adapted so that part-time workers enjoy conditions equivalent to those of comparable full-time workers.” It also states that those countries with thresholds in place should have them “periodically reviewed.”

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More recently, the ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202) said that countries should guarantee at least a basic level of social security to all, and progressively ensure adequate levels of protection to as many people as possible, as soon as possible.

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, now is a good time to heed this advice and restructure and rebuild the systems we have in place. It is clear that all workers – irrespective of their employment arrangements – need to be able to access health care, stay at home when feeling unwell so as to not report to work sick, and benefit from income support in case of a crisis-related reduction of working time or job loss.

In our diverse world, we need flexible ways of working, but this flexibility should not come at the expense of needed protections for workers. Let’s hope that COVID-19 gives the world the wake-up call that it needs.

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