Executive Summary

World Employment and Social Outlook 2023: The value of essential work [Summary]

Key workers are essential for societies to function. This report calls for a revaluation of their work to reflect their social contribution, and for greater investment in key sectors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the extent to which economies and societies depend on key workers. It has also highlighted how undervalued most key jobs are. Despite carrying out activities that are indispensable to the functioning of societies – producing, distributing and selling food, cleaning, ensuring public security, transporting essential goods and workers, and caring for and healing the ill – many key workers lack decent working conditions. Key employees earn, on average, 26 per cent less than non-key workers, and one in three is considered low-paid. Overall, key workers have lower rates of unionization, higher incidence of temporary contracts, long and irregular hours, and less access to training. They are also more exposed to physical and biological hazards as well as psychosocial risks – risks that were heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many key workers also lack social protection coverage, particularly in low-income countries.

Markets on their own have not been adequately internalizing the fundamental economic and social contribution of key work. This report calls for a revaluation of key work and greater investment in key sectors to reflect its vital contribution through a deliberate process of shared assessment and planning anchored in social dialogue. In addition to addressing an important, long-standing deficit in social justice, doing so will help to ensure the continuity of essential economic activities during future shocks and crises. This is one of the most important public policy lessons to be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic.