Towards just recovery and resilience post-COVID and beyond 2030
25 March 2021
Statement to the 8th Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development
24 March 2021
Download the PDF version of the statement here.
One year since the pandemic triggered an unprecedented and multidimensional crisis, many countries in Asia and the Pacific region are still reeling from the devastating impacts, further hampering the slow progress of realising the SDGs. The pandemic starkly exposed the fragility of economies and the labour market, which are deeply rooted in decades-long neoliberal policies that promote corporate greed and the interest of developed countries.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific region was not on track in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, in its SDGs Progress Report 2020, noted that the region is “likely to miss all 17 goals by 2030” without accelerated action.
With economies sinking and struggling to respond and recover from the crisis amplified by the pandemic, the promise of fulfilling the SDGs by the 2030 deadline looks even bleaker. However, if at all, the COVID-19 pandemic showed us the deep flaws and failures of the current system and created an opportunity for rebuild and transform our economies into one that serves the interest, wellbeing, and sustainability of the people and the planet.
Worsening decent work deficits in the time of COVID-19
The current crisis has vividly shown us that decent work for all (Goal 8) is crucial in ending all forms of poverty (Goal 1). Yet, the progress in achieving Goal 8 – based on its limited indicators – is far off track even before the pandemic. Huge decent work deficits remain unaddressed; hence, when the pandemic wrecked the economy, such deficits were not only uncovered, but became more pronounced.
The economic disruptions intensified by COVID-19 bred massive joblessness and precarity, exacerbating the existing vulnerabilities of the working people. In Asia and the Pacific region, an equivalent of 145 million full-time jobs were wiped out by the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic. Vulnerable workers who are often concentrated in the unprotected informal economy and in precarious non-standard employments – such as women, young people, older persons, migrants, and persons with disabilities – are among the hardest hit by the crisis.
The past year has been an uphill struggle for survival for the poorest and most vulnerable who lost their source of income and are living from hand to mouth on a daily basis. Left without adequate social protection and government assistance, workers defy social distancing rules and expose themselves to the risk of contracting the disease to be able to put food on the table and provide for their family’s needs. This is a common scenario in the region where millions of people have either fallen back or pushed into poverty because of the COVID-enhanced crisis and lack of social protection floors.
Before the pandemic, 1.4 million lost their lives from industrial accidents and occupational diseases in Asia and the Pacific. The COVID-19 added to the occupational risks faced by workers who cannot stay at home and work remotely. Many lives of healthcare workers at the frontlines of responding to the health emergency have been lost after contracting the disease; meanwhile, COVID-19 outbreaks in factories in several countries in the region rendered thousands of workers sick and ostracised by the society from being COVID-infected. While the gig economy and online platform-based work profited during the pandemic, especially delivery services for those working from home and locked down, drivers and riders that drive the businesses endure wage exploitation, risk their security without social protection, and are left to fend for themselves in the face of the threats to their occupational safety and health.
We believe that just recovery from the crisis and achieving the 2030 Agenda can only happen when decent work deficits are seriously addressed. Measures must not be limited to superficial indicators that do not recognise other rights and protections that are vital in ensuring a life of dignity for workers. For a genuine transformative change to be realised, the broken labour market must be repaired to guarantee labour rights and protection floors for all workers, regardless of their employment arrangements, including the fundamental rights of freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, freedom from discrimination and modern slavery through forced and child labour, occupational health and safety, minimum living wages, and maximum hours of work.
Gender equalities in the world of work
Overrepresented in COVID-affected sectors, such as in care economy, tourism, retail, and services sectors, women are disproportionately affected by the crisis and were more likely to be forced out of employment. Before COVID, women do 80 per cent of unpaid care work in Asia and the Pacific; when COVID made working from home a new normal for many workers, their burden of care work became even more demanding. Additionally, as cases of COVID-19 surge, the incidence of harassment and violence against women also surged drastically. Gender-based violence is dubbed by union women as a pandemic itself.
We acknowledge the initiatives to increase women’s participation in the labour force through skills training and education. However, these efforts must be augmented with policies and practices that uphold women’s fundamental rights at work, absent of discrimination. Women’s participation in a labour market that exploits their cheap labour is not meaningful, but rather oppressive. Gender pay gaps in the region, women-specific occupational risks at work, and other systemic barriers for women’s meaningful participation in the labour force must be eradicated.
We welcome Fiji’s ratification of the ILO Convention 190 (C190) aimed at eliminating harassment and violence in the world of work. We urge other governments in Asia and the Pacific region to follow Fiji’s lead and immediately take the necessary steps towards the C190 ratification. This policy action is more urgent than ever. Besides the coronavirus, misogyny and patriarchy are becoming viral, infecting the society and attacking the hard-won gains of women in promoting gender equality.
Leaving no one behind entails recognition of women’s role not only in productive labour, but also in social reproduction. Thus, we call on governments to adopt policies that recognise, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work. This can be done by developing publicly financed, easily accessible, and quality gender-responsive public goods and services, including water, power, childcare, and public transport, among others.
Just Transition and SDGs
We are in an extraordinary time, faced with unprecedented multiple crises – the global health pandemic, the economic recession, and the climate crisis. Most countries in Asia and the Pacific are among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, hence, the need for urgent and decisive climate actions that account for Just Transition. Yet, alarmingly, countries in the region are regressing in Goal 13.
The COVID-19 taught us that inaction and unjust actions in times of crisis cost people’s lives and put an immensely grave toll on people’s wellbeing. We must learn from the COVID-19 experience and ensure that climate, social, gender, and development justice are at the core of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to a zero-carbon economy. Just Transition measures, social dialogue and respect for human and labour rights must be central in negotiating climate policies, creating opportunities for climate-friendly and decent work, and building resilience against climate change impacts.
Alarming trade union repression amidst the multiple crises
At a time when solidarity is needed to help mitigate the adverse impacts of the multiple crises, it is when some countries in the region tightened their grip on workers’ exercise of trade union and human rights. According to ITUC’s Global Rights Index 2020, Asia-Pacific is the second worst region in the world for workers’ rights.
In the past year, states used the pandemic to expedite the passing of neoliberal and repressive laws that prey on the vulnerable, criminalise legitimate forms of dissent (including the rights to organise and to strike), erode previously won and guaranteed labour rights and standards in the guise of crisis responses, undermine democratic institutions, and protect the powerful, the wealthy and huge corporations. In some countries, workers and trade union members, leaders, and organisers became targets of threats, intimidation, trumped-up charges, wrongful arrests, and extrajudicial killings.
We are outraged that the internationally recognised workers’ rights and democratically established mechanisms for social dialogue deteriorates amidst the climate of violence and impunity in some countries in the region. We call on governments to stop the attacks against workers and trade unionists and uphold the fundamental rights of workers, including freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Instead of strengthening the mechanisms for social dialogue at the height of the pandemic, governments ‘socially distanced’ themselves from workers by enacting laws, crafting policies, and making decisions without regard for the workers’ interest and wellbeing. A people-centred sustainable development is not possible without social dialogue and peoples’ meaningful participation in democratic processes that serve the SDGs’ implementation and full realisation.
New social contract for recovery and resilience
The slogan, “leaving no one behind”, hardly resonates to those who suffered the devastating impacts of the COVID-19. The deeply flawed and broken economic system that fuels resource and labour exploitation as well as wealth accumulation of the few super-rich and huge corporations while the poorest and most vulnerable are left unprotected from economic shocks, climate-induced disasters, and health emergency. As the economy staggers from the pandemic, the world’s top billionaires increased their wealth by USD3.9 trillion between March to December last year while the labour income losses in 2020 reached USD3.7 trillion.
We need a new social contract that ensures economic recovery and resilience that can surmount the interlinked challenges of the pandemic, climate change, and inequality and fast-track the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. In this regard, we put forward five demands centred on promoting the rights and sustainability of the people and the planet.
Jobs. We have witnessed how fragile businesses and a nation’s development are if relying excessively on the demand from global supply chains and giving less priority to boosting domestic demand. Strengthening labour market institutions and systematic redistribution of wealth are paramount in reversing the declining labour income share and rising income inequality. It is imperative to shift from the neoliberal, export-led, debt-driven growth and labour exploitation to an income-led growth based on labour-income, pro-labour, and climate-friendly distributional policies that generates, by boosting domestic demand, an equitable, inclusive and resilient growth for the future of work.
Rights for all workers, irrespective of employment arrangements. In accordance to their commitments in the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, we call on governments and social partners to guarantee: 1) respect for fundamental rights at work, most importantly freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, 2) an adequate minimum living wage, 3) maximum limits on working hours, and 4) safety and health at work. We want to put a stop to the senseless killings of trade unionists and activists who are speaking out against injustices. We call on the UN and its agencies to step in and send missions and investigate governments—legitimate or not—that perpetrate a culture of killings and violence against legitimate forms of dissent and exercise of democratic rights, with the view of exacting accountability and addressing impunity.
Universal social protection. Social protection is a fundamental human right and a prerequisite to eradicating poverty and vulnerability, redressing inequality, ensuring decent work for all, furthering just transition, and enhancing economic resilience. We have witnessed how workers in the region failed to absorb economic shocks due to lack of social protection. Thus, we demand governments to introduce social protection measures like wage subsidies and unemployment insurance to prevent workers from falling deeply into poverty. To finance social protection, governments must adopt gender-just and progressive tax policies, enhance domestic resource mobilisation in a progressive manner, and implement fiscal policies that ensure allocation for universal social protection and quality public services.
Equality. The COVID-19 pandemic perpetuated a systemic crisis that fuels discrimination, racism, and unjust profiteering by a handful of billionaires. We all must work together to end all discrimination to ensure that all people can share in prosperity and sustainability and that the appalling concentration of wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the many is undone.
Inclusion. We need to strengthen inclusive development and solidarity to combat the growing power of monopolies and oligarchs. We must also push for tax systems that redistribute wealth and provide resources for governments to meet the needs of the people and the planet and to finance the implementation of SDGs. Millions have been left behind in the face of the current crises; thus, an inclusive and systemic approach is paramount on the path to just recovery and resilience post-COVID and beyond 2030.