More than 144 million jobs lost, COVID caused a global employment shift


More than 144 million jobs lost, COVID caused a global employment shift

Following the societal disruptions caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, a leading academic at Charles Sturt University reveals the enormous impact the health crisis has had on international employment.

He calls for immediate policy reforms and innovative programs to salvage and prevent millions of people from further plunging into poverty.

By Professor in Social Work Manohar Pawar (pictured, inset) in the Charles Sturt School of Social Work and Arts and member of the Charles Sturt Institute for Land, Water and Society (ILWS).

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has not only caused unemployment and livelihood issues, among others, but has also exposed the pre-pandemic need for greater employment opportunities, improved working conditions, and social protection measures.

Employment and livelihoods issues are not new. Poverty, particularly youth unemployment, armed conflict, and the impact of climate change such as drought and disasters have been increasing unemployment and livelihoods issues, and slowing down the progress made in reducing poverty, even during the pre-pandemic times.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent public health disaster ─ repeated lockdowns, loss of lives, shutdown of or diminished economic activities (particularly in certain sectors such as travel and tourism, hospitality, small and medium enterprises, and informal economy), and migration of workers in the hope of seeking security from the pandemic ─ have significantly changed the health and economic landscape of the world.

The issues of unemployment, lives and livelihoods have become huge challenges for almost all communities, nation-states, governments and other relevant stakeholders.

These should be a top policy priority for the post-COVID-19 pandemic recovery plan, otherwise the pandemic will leave a deep scar that may take a long time to heal.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO, 2021) estimates, in 2020, 8.8 per cent of total working hours were lost, which is the equivalent of hours worked by 255 million full-time workers.

Of this, about half was attributed to reduced employment and the remaining due to employment losses, with global job losses among wage and salaried employees in 2020 estimated to be twice as large as losses among the self-employed.

This has caused a shift in the employment structure and has led to the global shortfall in employment to increase by 144 million jobs in 2020.

This trend has continued in 2021 as the ILO analysis shows that in the first quarter the shortfall of working hours (4.8 per cent) was equivalent to 140 million full-time jobs and in the second quarter (4.4 per cent working hours) 127 million.

This has resulted in ‘a reduction in global labour of 5.3 per cent or US$ .3 trillion’ (ILO, 2021, p2).

All this has significant impact on employment, unemployment and livelihoods of millions of people and their dependents.

An ILO survey conducted in 45 countries found that 80 per cent of micro-enterprises and 70 per cent of small firms, and particularly informal enterprises, were experiencing significant financial difficulties in the second quarter of 2020 (ILO, 2021, p3).

A huge number of informal workers’ livelihoods are threatened as they have lost jobs and the main source of income, leaving them very vulnerable with meagre, or without any, social protection.

They were forced to leave employment places and return to their place of origin and some of them are less likely to reapproach those employers, who themselves are in financial difficulties, as stated above.

In 2019, 2 billion or 60.1 per cent of the globally employed were informal workers. Unlike digitally skilled workers, they have little option to work from home.

Women are doubly disadvantaged as they have lost more jobs (5 per cent) compared to men (3.9 per cent) and at the same time, their unpaid work in homes (e.g., caring and schooling) has increased. This is likely to exacerbate gender gap issues.

ILO’s trends analysis indicated that in 2021, 100 million full-time equivalent jobs will be lost. Since the projected employment growth is weak, those unemployed returning to work and young people ready to take new jobs will find it challenging to enter the labour market due to reduced employment opportunities.

The ILO estimates suggest 220 million unemployed people in 2021 and 205 million in 2022.

Although most countries will experience unemployment, low- and middle-income countries will be most impacted and likely to take longer time to recover.

Similarly, the World Bank (2020) report states that ‘The new poor are likely to be more urban and educated than the chronic poor, more engaged in informal services and manufacturing and less in agriculture. Middle-income countries such as India and Nigeria may be home to 75 per cent of the new poor’.

For some, if sustainable employment and livelihoods for all appears romantic, what is realistic is unemployment and threat to livelihoods, particularly as technologies and artificial intelligence gradually replace labour. Millions of informal and formal workers doing repetitive jobs are at risk.

To address this and to provide sustainable employment and livelihoods for all, radical thinking and policies are needed.

The concept of employment, unemployment, part-time employment, full-time employment, and employment for five or six days per week needs to be reconceptualised and redefined.

When we carefully address the core issues and causes related to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and armed conflicts, providing sustainable employment and livelihoods for all is not beyond our reach.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Professor Manohar Pawar contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or

Read more by Professor Pawar in the special issue on ‘Sustainable Employment and Livelihoods for All’ in the International Journal of Community and Social Development, 3(3) 191-197, 2021.

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