Pandemic offers a chance to rebalance the world of work

Pandemic offers a chance to rebalance the world of work

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Migrant workers and their families return to their villages, during a nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of COVID-19, New Delhi, India, March 26, 2020. (Reuters)

The International Labour Organization (ILO) will this week convene a global summit — a virtual one, of course — on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the world of work. Four months or so since the pandemic sent the world into a tailspin, such a discussion seems timely and even urgent. The virus has now claimed more than half a million lives worldwide. However, much greater than the number of people who have contracted the virus is the number of people who have lost their jobs because of it, or whose livelihood and material well-being have been rendered precarious from the shock to the economy. Unemployment rates in many countries remain very high, with no clear road to normalization within sight for giant industries like travel, hospitality, transport, and the performing arts. In the long term, the virus may prove to have a much greater impact on the world of work than it does on health.

Coronavirus has changed not only the way we work, but also our perception of the risks of the work we do relative to the rewards. Almost from day one, the pandemic exposed clear fault lines between different classes of workers. Even now, there are those who can work from home and those who can’t (and, among children, there are those who can continue their education online and those who can’t). There are those who can shelter at home when cases arise and those, like hospital and sanitation workers and the police, who cannot. Newly salient, too, is the divide between those who have both income and wealth, or income and savings, and those with only income: A single tap of security that has now been turned off. 

Where does all this leave us? We need a new yardstick by which to apportion value and self-worth in the world of work. Capitalism is based on the idea (perhaps more fiction than reality in any case) that the market economy rewards workers in proportion to their skills and their willingness to work hard. But, now and for the foreseeable future, millions of people around the world will have no work — or work that may be terminated at short notice — for reasons that have nothing to do with their competence. 

The economic fallout of the pandemic only exacerbates negative trends that were already visible in the world of 21st-century work: The rise of automation and the prospect of economic growth without an expansion of the job market; the expansion of the platform economy and the normalization of lack of access to social security; and the stagnation of wages in real terms and the lack of opportunities for social mobility. 

It is a sobering time but also a chance to accelerate, in step with the growing scale of the crisis, ideas and policies about work, income and social infrastructure that were only slowly entering (or re-entering after a holiday of some decades) the mainstream of economic thought. Take, for instance, the increasing consideration around the world — including in highly capitalist cultures like the US that would ordinarily recoil from such ideas — of the need in a precarious employment landscape for something like a universal basic income (UBI). For a long time, even those willing to think seriously about UBI were deterred by the proposed costs of such a scheme as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). But, in the wake of the pandemic, many governments around the world have found themselves spending equivalent sums of money on economic stimulus packages. 

For example, the Indian government has estimated the value of its own stimulus package at 10 percent of GDP, although this is widely disputed and most independent calculations place it at more like 5 percent. It is worth noting, however, that the government’s own economic survey in 2018 set out the potential cost of a quasi-basic income of approximately $120 per person annually — to be given to 75 percent of the population, leaving out the wealthiest 25 percent — at 4.9 percent of GDP. Suddenly, that does not seem like an excessive amount of money to spend on eliminating extreme poverty — itself a condition as serious as a pandemic and much more consequential in its long-term effects — and building security and resilience for the rest of society. 

With economic growth, which was until now the means proposed by most economists as the engine that would reduce poverty and improve overall well-being, projected to be negative in most economies for at least a couple of years, societies must find ways to ensure a minimum level of material security for all citizens and to defend human capital from the spasms of both capitalism and the coronavirus. 

The economic fallout of the pandemic only exacerbates negative trends that were already visible in the world of 21st-century work.

Chandrahas Choudhury

And there are other transitions to consider. With paid work suddenly so uncertain, the rural combination of farmland and a roof above one’s head represents a welcome source of security to which hundreds of thousands of urban workers have flocked in the wake of the pandemic. In India, there is a new conversation taking place about using the crisis as a hinge for revitalizing the rural economy and generating work close to home, instead of treating villages merely as pools of surplus labor with which to feed the forces of relentless, dystopian urbanization. 

The pandemic should be an opportunity for the world’s economies, each in their own way, to refine and rebalance the way in which their citizens work.

  • Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and The National. Twitter: @Hashestweets
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