The Future of Work: Covid-19 Edition

The Future of Work: Covid-19 Edition

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Globalisation and digitalisation have dramatically impacted the world of work in the last decade. The OECD reports that almost 14% of jobs in OECD countries are likely to be automated, and more than 32% of jobs are likely to be partially automated. Low-skilled workers and young people are the most at risk, but high-skilled jobs are exempt. The 2018 MNC Trends Report produced by the LRS with the support of the FES TUCC focused on the future of work and what it could entail in a developing context, and more specifically, Africa. The past two years have brought new developments.

Along with a massive international public health crisis, the covid-19 pandemic has ushered in an economic crisis akin to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The pandemic has fast-tracked some of the predicted changes in the world of work. It has disrupted economies and societies, and exacerbated the gap between ‘the most privileged and the most vulnerable‘. The pandemic has forced businesses to change their way of working in a very short time. A lot of businesses have had to shift to remote operations and changing schedules. We have to ask whether these changes will become permanent in a post-pandemic world. Many of the changes were predicted – but the pandemic has accelerated the uptake of these new technologies. Will COVID-19 permanently change the way we work?

During the pandemic so far, millions of people have lost their jobs. Despite promising vaccines, the future remains uncertain for millions of workers across the globe. People around the world have shifted to working from home (around 39% of workers on average), enabled by fast-growing technology and the internet. However, this is not an option for many workers, especially in Africa. These jobs, often in the retail, manufacturing and transport sectors, are most likely held by lower-skilled workers. In addition to these changes, workers have been laid off in many non-essential sectors, companies have enforced hiring freezes, and put many workers on ‘hold’.

Furthermore, the gig economy has grown exponentially over the last year. However, the concerns about the quality of jobs in the gig economy have grown alongside the industry.

Countries have responded to the pandemic at an unprecedented rate, including debilitating lockdowns and severe constraints on human movement. This article (extracted from the 2020 MNC Trends Report) will focus on some of the trends already visible in the world of work due to the dramatic impact of the pandemic.

Trends in the labour market 

We saw a lot of trends emerge throughout the first eight months of the pandemic.

  • There has been a significant increase in remote working, with white-collar workers setting up offices at home and connecting via technologies like Zoom, Slack and Skype.
  • There has been an increase in the way that employers monitor workers, especially with regards to tracking productivity. Some workers are expected to virtually ‘clock’ in and out, while other employers such as Amazon have increased ‘data collection’ on worker productivity.
  • The uncertainty that the pandemic has caused in the economy has caused dramatic job losses, and also the dramatic changing of traditional work models. Previously permanent workers are now flexible, non-permanent, part-time or temporarily furloughed.
  • Some companies have prioritised the well-being of employees, while other companies have pushed workers to continue working in high-risk environments and often without adequate personal protection equipment.

Gender and covid-19 

The crisis has brought to light gaps in the labour market and highlighted the most vulnerable workers. Low-paid workers, women, self-employed and temporary workers have been hit the hardest: ‘the burden of the pandemic has been shouldered disproportionately by the most vulnerable.’

Lower income workers are the least likely to have been able to work from home, and particularly part-time workers have been exposed to job and income losses. Women are disproportionately represented in precarious jobs, which has meant that women have been more vulnerable to the effects of the crisis than men.

This has meant that women are more likely than men to have lost their job. One study estimates that women were 1.8 more likely than men to have lost their job due to the pandemic. And that only refers to paid work, not unpaid work like cooking, cleaning and childcare. Women already did most of this kind of unpaid work before the pandemic, and the pandemic has increased the disparity.

However, the paid and unpaid economies are interrelated. While paid work is more visible, it cannot exist without unpaid, behind the scenes work. According to Melinda Gates, ‘the unpaid work women do is one of the biggest barriers they face to reaching their potential in the workforce.’ Women account for half of all entry-level employees, but only a third of senior managers. This is often because women prioritise family responsibilities over their work life.

Longer-term effects of remote work 

For some workers, the change to home working will have some positive effects like limiting commuting time and a better work-life balance. However, the 60% of workers who are not able to work remotely may be adversely affected by this change. One in four workers is in cleaning, retail, food service, transportation and personal care – and the lack of commuting workers and workers concentrated in cities will have a knock-on effect on these jobs.

Flexible workforces 

Employers are, more often than not, looking for ways to reduce labour costs. The pandemic has increased this trend when companies operating in a difficult economic climate are looking for innovative ways to reduce costs. Companies are harnessing the power of the gig economy to make this happen.

Technology enables ‘widespread, flexible and on-demand work opportunities’This kind of work makes workers more vulnerable to exploitation. These workers are often not protected and don’t have any of the benefits of permanent employment like sick leave, medical aid, life insurance and retirement plans. This has not stopped companies from ‘casualising’ work. As established in the LRS study conducted with the support of the FES TUCC, work is starting to take on a more flexible form in which workers are not protected and jobs are not secured (Omomowo, 2011). The pandemic has worsened this trend.

A voice in the workplace 

According to Anna Stansbury (Inequality & Social Policy Scholar, Harvard University), one of the biggest effects of the pandemic has been to ‘illuminate the utter lack of voice and influence most people have in their workplace.’ The below quote illustrates:

"This is starkest if you consider low-paid essential workers in industries like food production or delivery – working for meagre pay at the best of times, in poor working conditions and during this pandemic often forced to choose between losing their income or risking contracting a disease which could threaten them and their loved ones… Healthcare workers – on the frontline in dealing with the pandemic – are dying at alarming rates, and are often forced to go without the information, the protective equipment or the workplace practices needed to stay safe. Employees in retail, in office jobs, in hospitality have hesitated to return to long days of working in enclosed spaces with poor air circulation – but have often had no real choice in the matter."

Anna Stansbury

These kinds of working conditions have increased calls for strikes, walkouts, greater unionisations and better worker representation.

Africa 

Due to a rising number of COVID-19 cases, Africa is facing its first recession in over 25 years. As with the rest of the world, the pandemic has contributed to job disruption. Many African businesses are embracing a digital transformation – including food deliveries and offering online services. The World Economic Forum predicts that, along with governments’ swift responses, the efforts bode well for economic activity and job creation. 

There are still numerous challenges to overcome. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report confirms that the pandemic has accelerated the technological changes brought about by the 4th Industrial Revolution. A survey of employers in South Africa found that 75% would accelerate the automation of tasks. 

Louise Fox and Landry Signé, both of the Africa Growth Initiative, write about the unprecedented effect of the pandemic on livelihoods in Africa, specifically the reduction in earnings and the subsequent increase in poverty. The scale of job losses will differ greatly per sector and country, but they predict that the main effects will be ‘a drop in earnings (income) and increased underemployment (reduced hours) rather than unemployment’. 

Global supply chains have been significantly disrupted due to the pandemic, and global demand for goods and services has decreased. High debt levels and high healthcare cost will inevitably affect households. Most of Africa’s labour force works in the informal economy, and due to declines in local and foreign demand, this sector will suffer. 

What is true for the developed world is not always true for Africa. Instead of relying on automation, which is often expensive and reliant on infrastructure (like electricity and internet access) employers are seeking more flexible workforces in the advent of the fourth industrial revolution. This is the greatest threat to workers in African multinational companies.

Conclusion 


To protect workers, both governments and companies should ensure social safety nets. An important part of the post-pandemic transition will be reskilling and upskilling. According to the World Economic Forum, ‘
the pandemic has destroyed more jobs in two months than the Great Recession in the United States did in two years’.

More needs to be done to ensure investment in sectors where workers are protected. The World Economic Forum estimates that around 50% of employees will need reskilling by 2025. 

The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated the working conditions of the lowest-paid workers in Africa. The biggest effects may yet be felt. There are some big changes already visible. However, this change should accommodate for adequate social protection, compensation measures and/or training and (re)skilling opportunities for workers. 

Bargaining is essential to the transition out of the pandemic. The 2020 MNC Trends Report provides key company and sector analysis to assist unions in this bargaining. Most of the financial data for the past year is not available yet, and 2020 financials will be vital to the bargaining environment. This data will become available throughout 2021.

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