The Cheat Sheet

What Covid-19 means for workers of the world

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on April 01, 2020 Published on April 01, 2020

Thousands are going to lose their jobs, I hear.

Right you’re. In fact, more than 25 million workers are going to go jobless in the near future owing to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis, according to the International Labour Organisation. A recent note from the UN body — titled ‘Covid-19 and the world of work: Impact and policy responses’ — says the coronavirus crisis will have far-reaching impact on labour market outcomes and could hit anywhere between five million and 25 million jobs. Even the average estimate suggests nearly 13 million people will lose jobs.

Oh, that’s huge!

Yes. If you may recall, the global financial crisis of 2008-09, which shook labour markets for months, had caused a 22-million spike in unemployment across the globe, according to the ILO. That’s mostly in the organised sector. A 2010 study by the ILO and the International Institute for Labour Studies, on the impact of the financial crisis on employment and the role of labour market institutions, had estimated that in G20 countries the rate of joblessness crossed 9 per cent at the start of 2010. The same study observed that with unemployment levels hovering around nearly 19 million between the first quarters of 2008 and 2010, the total number of individuals unemployed in G20 came close to 74 million, including all sectors.

OMG! Now, with everyone saying Covid-19 is a crisis where the social meets the economic and everything else, one can only imagine the magnitude of the crisis that awaits us.

You said it! From the pace with which the coronavirus has been spreading across the globe — as we speak nearly 43,000 people have died of Covid-19 across the world and the diseases has infected more than 860,000 people in nearly 200 countries, according to data provided by Johns Hopkins University — and the way businesses are forced to cut operations, pause production and put workers on hold, it is a given that the impact of Covid-19 on global unemployment is going to be something that would have no parallels in history.

That’s fatalities of another kind, I tell you.

Indeed. There is also the issue of skill shortage if the real fatalities are going to rise. In history, the Black Death pandemic killed more than 20 million people between 1347 and 1352 in Europe alone and, mind you, this was one-third or more of the entire continent’s population. Soon after, there was a huge shortage of skilled labour in every sector which created wage fluctuations on the one hand and unemployment (thanks to wrecked economies) on the other hand.

That’s interesting.

Historians have pointed out that the Plague had an interesting impact on the way feudal lords, who held most of the land in Europe then and the farmers who worked on their land. Since it became more and more difficult to get people to work on farmlands and do other chores, farmers started demanding better pay and this led to a deep socio-political crisis in Europe. Since you’ve a good deal of time at hand, thanks to social distancing and work-from-home schedules, you may check this interesting book — King Death: The Black Death and its Aftermath in Late-Medieval England — by Colin Platt.

I’ll buy a (digital) copy. But how will Covid-19 change the labour dynamics?

Given that fatalities are, touch wood, not seen to be reaching such apocalyptic levels even though we are still unsure about the trajectory it is going to take in the immediate future, one can foresee three scenarios. The first is, considering that the world has been integrated more than ever now thanks to globalisation, the impact of Covid-19 on the labour markets will be more broad based and hence would require concerted measures at the global level to bring them back to normalcy. Second, since the crisis has hit the workers at a time labour as an idea and workers’ power for collective bargaining has already been emaciated courtesy draconian labour market reforms across the country, including in India and the US where informalisation of work has taken alarming pace, the imminent spell of unemployment is going to be a double-whammy for the global workforce. This means trade unions and labour watchdogs must buckle themselves up for a long fight.

..And the third?

The third and most important scenario is that, considering the way Covid-19 has exposed the chinks in the market-capitalist order and private-money-driven welfare, the crisis offers the working class an opportunity to get out of their illusions and fatalism around trickle-down theories and the flexibility mirage promoted by the advocates of temp work and informalisation of work and start demanding better wages, social security and an equitable share in labour-enabled profits.

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Published on April 01, 2020
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