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The value of essential work

This report from the ILO acknowledges that key workers are essential for societies to function. It calls for a revaluation of their work to reflect their social contribution, and for greater investment in key sectors.

At the end of March 2020, 80% of the world’s population lived in countries with required workplace closures, although key workers continued to go to work. Across the world, these workers produced, distributed and sold food, cleaned streets and buses to minimize the spread of the pandemic, ensured public safety, transported essential goods and workers to their jobs, and cared for and healed the sick. These are the key workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made evident the extent to which societies need key workers – in both good times and bad – but also how undervalued most key jobs are, raising concerns about the sustainability of these essential activities, especially given the possibility of future shocks.

This report calls for a revaluation of the work of key workers to reflect their social contribution and greater investment in key sectors. It covers the following:

  • Who are the key workers?

  • The risk and strain of working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Working conditions of key workers.

  • Specific challenges faced by the eight key occupational groups.

  • Strengthening the institutions of work.

  • Sectoral investments to support key workers and enterprises.

  • Policies to build resilience.

Some of the main findings highlighted in the report include the following:

  • Key workers can be found among eight main occupational groups: food system workers, health workers, retail workers, security workers, manual workers, cleaning and sanitation workers, transport workers, and technicians and clerical workers.

  • Across the 90 countries with available data, key workers make up 52% of the workforce, although the share is lower in high-income countries (34%), where economic activities are more diversified and there is a smaller share of workers in agriculture.

  • Less than 2% of key workers are engaged in healthcare in low-income countries, the share jumps to 20% for high-income countries.

  • Women account for 38% of all key workers globally.

  • Key workers suffered higher mortality rates from COVID-19 than non-key workers, as a result of their greater exposure to the virus.

  • Mortality rates varied among key workers: while health workers had high levels of contact with infected patients, their mortality rates were lower than those of transport workers, who suffered the highest mortality rates.

  • Working conditions of key workers are deficient in a number of areas including: elevated OSH risks, over-reliance on temporary contracts, long and irregular working hours, insufficient training, etc.

  • Specific challenges faced by the eight key occupational groups, including significant OSH challenges, including exposure to psychological risks faced by health workers, and elevated risks of violence and harassment, excessive work hours faced by security workers.

  • Decent work is particularly critical for key workers, given the importance of their work for the basic functioning of economies and societies.

  • Investments in physical and social infrastructure in key sectors are necessary for improving working conditions and strengthening business continuity.

  • Labour markets do not account for the social and economic contribution of key work. Addressing this undervaluation is necessary for ensuring resilient economies and societies.

ILO March 2023


The value of essential work
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