Published in March 2023
The value of essential work
World Employment and Social Outlook 2023
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.
About the report
At the end of March 2020, 80% of the world’s population lived in countries with required workplace closures. At the same time, in the hushed streets of cities and towns throughout the world, key workers left the safety of their homes 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.
The report is organized around seven chapters:
- Chapter 1: Who are the key workers?
- Chapter 2: The risk and strain of working during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Chapter 3: Working conditions of key workers
- Chapter 4: Specific challenges faced by the eight key occupational groups
- Chapter 5: Strengthening the institutions of work
- Chapter 6: Sectoral investments to support key workers and enterprises
- Chapter 7: Policies to build resilience
Homepage photo credit: © PeopleImages
Chapter 1: Who are the key workers?
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.
Whereas 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, which is lower than their share in non-key work (42%). Women constitute two thirds of key health workers and more than one half of key retail workers, but they are grossly under-represented in security and transport.
High-income countries rely heavily on international migrants to perform key services in occupations like agriculture and cleaning and sanitation.
Chapter 2: The risk and strain of working during the COVID-19 pandemic
Key workers suffered higher mortality rates from COVID-19 than non-key workers, as a result of their greater exposure to the virus.
However, 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.
The findings reveal the importance of occupational safety and health (OSH) protections – to which transport workers had less access – but also the benefits of working in formal workplaces with collective representation. Formally employed workers with job security and union representation had working environments were able to fare better with the increased demands and risks of working during the pandemic.
Key enterprises that provided goods and services deemed essential by governments at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic faced many challenges. These included managing disrupted supply chains, financial uncertainty, declines in investment, problems with staffing, and implementing emergency OSH guidelines. These issues were more acute for micro and small enterprises.
Chapter 3: Working conditions of key workers
How key workers are valued is reflected in their pay and other working conditions. Deficiencies in any of these areas typically reverberate across other areas.
- Elevated OSH risks. Physical and biological hazards, as well as psychosocial risks, more commonly affect key workers. During the pandemic, the incidence of verbal abuse and threats increased sharply for all key workers.
- Over-reliance on temporary contracts. Nearly one in three key employees is on a temporary contract, though there are considerable country and sectoral differences.
- Long and irregular working hours. More than 46% of key employees in low-income countries work long hours, while a substantial share of key workers around the world has irregular schedules or short hours.
- Low pay. On average, 29% of key employees are low paid regardless of countries’ level of development. Key employees earn 26% less than other employees.
- Under-representation, especially in a few key sectors. Unionization rates in several key sectors are significantly lower than average rates in developed and developing countries alike.
- Deficits in social protection, including paid sick leave. Nearly 60% of key workers in low- and middle-income countries lack some form of social protection.
- Insufficient training. Less than 3% of key workers in low- and lower-middle-income countries received training during the preceding 12 months.
Chapter 4: Specific challenges faced by the eight key occupational groups
Specific groups of key workers are exposed to particular hazards or insecurities:
- Food system workers regularly face high levels of working poverty, endure OSH risks, and overall are poorly covered by labour and social protection.
- Health workers face significant OSH challenges, including exposure to psychological risks. Working conditions in occupations such as care work reflect women’s gender segregation, low remuneration and pay gaps.
- Most key retail workers in developing countries are self-employed, often without social protection coverage. Globally, many key retail workers have irregular work schedules, while half of this occupational group in lower-middle and low-income countries work long hours.
- Security workers face elevated risks of violence and harassment, and more than one third work excessive hours. They are at greater risk of developing physical and psychological illness as a result of their work.
- Warehouse work has expanded with the boom in e-commerce, yet the work entails comparatively low pay, a high prevalence of temporary contracts and subcontracted work, high worker turnover, and few prospects for training and career progression.
- Cleaning and sanitation workers routinely face stigmatization. Many are employed on temporary contracts, and they are one of the lowest-paid occupational groups.
- More than three out of five key transportation workers work long hours, contributing to significant safety and health risks.
Chapter 5: How to strengthen the institutions of work
While decent work is a universal objective, it is particularly critical for key workers, given the importance of their work for the basic functioning of economies and societies.
Regulation, either through laws or collective bargaining agreements, in concert with other institutions of work – workers’ and employers’ organizations, labour administration and inspection systems, and courts and tribunals – is needed to achieve the following objectives:
- Safety and health protections that apply to all branches of economic activity and all workers, regardless of their employment status
- Equality of treatment for all contractual arrangements and other safeguards
- Safe and predictable working hours
- Wages that reflect key workers’ social contribution
- Universal social protection, including coverage of paid sick leave
- Training, for an adaptive and responsive key workforce
Chapter 6: Sectoral investments to support key workers and enterprises
Investments in physical and social infrastructure in key sectors are necessary for improving working conditions and strengthening business continuity.
Such investments lay the foundation for creating resilient economies and societies with the capacity to withstand, adapt to and transform in the face of shocks and crises.
- Investments in health and long-term care. Adequate investments in health and long-term care are costly, but they pay off. The ILO estimates that increased spending to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets on health would generate 173 million jobs.
- Investments in resilient food systems. Agricultural workers are highly susceptible to income fluctuations and would benefit from minimum guaranteed prices and insurance systems. Infrastructure investments would further support the productivity and sustainability of food systems.
- Investments in resilient enterprises. 85% of key workers are in the private sector. Ensuring that enterprises have adequate resources and capacities is thus a prerequisite to attain decent work for key workers as well as to reinforce our capacity to maintain the delivery of key products and services during a crisis.
Chapter 7: Policies to build resilience
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.
To do this, governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations should come together to develop an actionable road map for identifying and addressing specific obstacles to the delivery of key goods and services, both in good times and bad.
Like an insurance policy, such a strategy would more than pay for itself when the next crisis hits. This is one of the most important policy lessons to be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Image: Typographic poster created by designer Craig Oldham to celebrate key workers' contribution to societies. © Common Practices
Background studies on key workers during COVID-19
A series of commissioned studies on different aspects of work during the COVID-19 pandemic informed the report’s findings. These have been published as ILO working papers.