UN labor chief calls on Asia to strengthen social safety nets | Labor rights

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Asia-Pacific countries should take the pandemic as a wake-up call to bolster their meager social safety nets, the head of the UN jobs agency has said.

In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, International Labor Organization (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder said COVID-19 has revealed the need for “much more robust” social protection in the region, where border restrictions and business closures continue to inflict damage to livelihoods two years into the pandemic.

“I think the failure of some to do it or not do it adequately has been part of the problem of management and the resilience needed to deal with the COVID pandemic,” Ryder said.

Ryder said while it was not for him to judge whether some countries’ public health responses were better than others, he believed Asia-Pacific needed to be better prepared for “future shocks” that may come. public health or other crises. .

“Where you have restrictions in place, where you have situations where people can’t come to work, can’t do their job, at all or in the normal way, then clearly you have to put in place compensatory measures to support the income of workers, to support businesses,” said the head of the UN employment agency.

According to a 2020 ILO report, many Asia-Pacific countries spend less than 2% of their gross domestic product on social protection, excluding health care, well below the global average of 11%.

International travel has stopped in Asia during the pandemic [File: Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg] (Bloomberg)

Many Asia-Pacific countries have reported fewer deaths than their Western counterparts during the pandemic, but ongoing border controls and trade restrictions in the region have inflicted heavy social and economic costs.

While the emergence of the Omicron variant has accelerated some Western countries’ moves toward life with the virus – due to the variant’s higher transmissibility and milder severity than previous strains – many economies Asia Pacific have reversed or delayed steps toward reopening.

In recent weeks, economies such as mainland China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore have tightened their borders. Mainland China, Hong Kong and South Korea have also reimposed nationwide controls ranging from school closures to business closures and curfews.

Despite high vaccine coverage, Asia-Pacific was largely closed to travel even before the new variant appeared.

In October, travel in the region was down 92.8% compared to the same period in 2019, while air traffic in Europe and North America fell 51% and 57%, respectively.

Ryder, however, said he does not believe the pandemic will not lead to a permanent dismantling of connectivity and globalization in Asia-Pacific.

“My view is that we’re not about to retreat from globalization, we’re not on the path to de-globalization, and I wouldn’t want to see those things either, and I don’t think so. more than they would benefit one of the populations that I think we might consider,” he said.

“I don’t see us projected, if you will, onto a trajectory of de-globalization or backsliding, not by virtue of the labor market impact of COVID on the world of work.”

‘Good direction’

Ryder said that while the global economy was “moving in the right direction”, he expressed concern that the recovery from the pandemic was both uncertain and uneven.

In its outlook for 2022 released earlier this week, the ILO predicted that global employment would not return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2023. The UN agency projected that the shortage of hours worked this year would be equivalent to 52 million full-time jobs, a downward revision from previous forecasts, with underlying inequalities between countries “amplifying and prolonging the negative impact of the crisis”.

“While people in high-income countries can expect standards of living, levels of production that they had before the pandemic, that’s not the case in developing countries, that’s not the case of emerging economies,” said Ryder.

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