The scale of the economic challenge wrought by COVID-19 is catastrophic—and one the world hasn’t faced in a century. As the pandemic magnifies the cracks in our broken economic systems, it’s accelerating a long overdue reckoning about the future of work and our economy at large. For far too long, we, as a global society, have relied on an unsustainable way of working and business norms that maximize the wealth of the powerful and privileged, enabling an unbridled form of capitalism that has deepened inequality and reduced the power of working people.
Over the last few decades, corporations and governments have diminished worker power with stagnant, unfair wages, declining benefits, little to no social protections, and obstacles to unionization. More than half the global workforce operates without a formal contract or arrangement and vital protections such as health care, sick leave and child care, while 8% of workers live in extreme poverty. Without a social safety net, workers—particularly low-wage workers, immigrants, people of color, women and the disabled—have had little choice but to risk their lives, leading to increased exposure to poverty and COVID-19. Women, largely women of color, experienced a landmark departure from the global workforce, with 2.2 million out in the U.S. alone due to broken care systems.
In the face of these conditions, we’ve witnessed a historic act of refusal by workers, who are no longer accepting below standard wages and protections and calling for a more just economy. As the world re-emerges from COVID, we have a historic opportunity to build a global economy that works for all. By strengthening the rights of workers, investing in quality jobs at every level, and providing paths for historically excluded communities to play more meaningful roles in the economy, we can create truly inclusive economic systems and ensure everyone has an opportunity to prosper.
To ensure equality of opportunity, all people—regardless of their ability, gender, race, or background—must have access to promising jobs with the possibility of growth, instead of being forced to accept low-paying positions without the benefits and protections they deserve.
While women make up half of the global population, only 47% are part of the workforce, compared to 72% of men. For those women who do work, they tend to be overrepresented in vulnerable, low-paying and undervalued occupations. Roughly 58% of working women worldwide engage in informal employment with few prospects or protections, a figure that rises to 92% in the Global South. Opening up more opportunities for women can add up to $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025, but we need to support their growth by pushing for equal pay, eliminating discrimination and barriers to quality jobs, and providing them with the safeguards that keep them—and their jobs—protected during crises like COVID-19.
Historically people with disabilities have earned less, experienced a higher rate of unemployment, or have been left out of the workforce entirely. Accommodations such as the option to work from home were out of reach as many employers assumed remote work was unfeasible. Now that the pandemic has turned that thinking on its head, we must tap the incredible potential people with disabilities hold, and provide the benefits and protections they need to thrive. They make up 15% of the world’s population so, without their contributions, we risk our chances at accelerating recovery and building a new economy grounded in equity. Not only do they bring unique perspectives to the table, companies and organizations that champion inclusion outperform their peers, so inclusion needs to be seen as a priority with goals, measurement and accountability.
In the U.S., one in three people with criminal records struggle to access quality work, confronted with hurdles like employer stigma, discriminatory questions on applications, and restrictions on trade licenses. Companies can take immediate steps to be agents of change by adopting and advancing fair chance hiring and supporting skills building and job placement programs, so people with criminal records have a path toward economic mobility.
The benefits of inclusion are many. The sooner companies realize those benefits, unlock opportunities for workers at every level, and recognize those workers as partners, the sooner workers will see themselves as part of the company’s success and invest in its growth—and the growth of the greater economy.
All working people must have equal rights to labor protections, access to social protections, and the opportunity to shape the policies and systems that affect their lives. Yet COVID fully exposed the inequalities in workers’ rights and conditions, particularly in the Global South.
The global economy is fueled by informal workers: street vendors, domestic workers, piece-rate workers, day laborers, waste pickers and more. They make up 60% of the world’s workforce—90% in the Global South—yet they have few rights, no benefits or protections, and barely make enough to support their families. Throughout the pandemic, they have been disproportionately exposed not just to the virus, but also to injustice and economic ruin.
For the economy to recover equitably, the collective power of these 2 billion workers needs to grow. On an international level, WIEGO is calling on governments to ensure informal workers, particularly women, are at the center of relief efforts, government assistance and economic stimulus programs. In the U.S., the Families and Workers Fund is reimagining America’s public benefits system with partners in government, business, and the social sector.
The pandemic has underlined how vital workers, both formal and informal, are to an economic recovery. We must elevate their voices to ensure they have a say in their working conditions, and secure them a seat at the table alongside policymakers and business leaders, so they can be the center of solutions as we plan for the future.
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