After COVID, Asia must bolster social safety net: UN labour chief

International Labour Organization head Guy Ryder expresses optimism Asia-Pacific will not abandon globalisation.

Guy Ryder talks to Al Jazeera
ILO Director-General Guy Ryder has called on Asia-Pacific economies to beef up their social safety nets [File: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters]

Asia-Pacific countries should see the pandemic as a wake-up call to bolster their meagre social safety nets, the head of the UN labour agency has said.

In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, International Labour Organization (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder said COVID-19 had revealed the need for “much more robust” social protection in the region, where border restrictions and business closures continue to inflict damage to livelihoods two years into the pandemic.

“The failure of some to do that or not to do so adequately, I think, has been part of the problem of dealing and having the necessary resilience to deal with the COVID pandemic,” Ryder said.

Ryder added that while it was not his place to judge whether the public health responses of some countries were better than others, he believed the Asia-Pacific needed to better prepare itself for “future shocks” that could come from public health or other crises.

“Where you have restrictions in place, where you have situations in which people cannot get to work, cannot do their jobs, at all or in the normal way, then clearly you have to have compensatory measures in place to support the income of working people, to support enterprises,” the UN labour agency chief said.

Many Asia-Pacific countries spend less than 2 per cent of gross domestic product on social protection, excluding healthcare, according to a 2020 report by the ILO, far below the global average of 11 per cent.

Airport lounge, Hong Kong
International travel has ground to a halt in Asia during the pandemic [File: Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg]

Many Asia-Pacific countries have reported fewer deaths than their Western counterparts during the pandemic, but the region’s ongoing border controls and business restrictions have inflicted heavy social and economic costs.

While the emergence of the Omicron variant has accelerated moves by some Western countries towards living with the virus – due to the variant’s higher transmissibility and milder severity than previous strains – many Asia-Pacific economies have reversed or delayed steps towards reopening.

In recent weeks, economies including mainland China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore have tightened their borders. Mainland China, Hong Kong and South Korea have also reimposed domestic controls ranging from school closures to lockdowns and business curfews.

Despite high vaccination coverage, the Asia-Pacific was largely closed to travel even before the emergence of the new variant.

In October, travel in the region was down 92.8 percent compared with the same period in 2019, while air traffic in Europe and North American was down 51 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

Ryder said, however, he did believe the pandemic would not lead to a permanent unravelling of connectivity and globalisation in the Asia-Pacific.

“My view is we’re not on the verge of stepping back from globalisation, we are not on a road to deglobalisation, nor would I wish to see these things, nor do I think they would be of benefit to any of the populations that I think we might consider,” he said.

“I do not see not us being projected, if you like, along a trajectory of deglobalisation or retreat, not by virtue of the labour market impact of COVID on the world of work.”

‘Right direction’

Ryder said that although the global economy was “moving in the right direction,” he was concerned the pandemic recovery was both uncertain and unequal.

In its outlook for 2022 published earlier this week, the ILO predicted global employment would not recover to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2023. The UN agency projected the shortfall in hours worked this year would be equivalent to 52 million full-time jobs, a downgrade from previous forecasts, with underlying inequalities between countries “amplifying and prolonging the adverse impact of the crisis”.

“While those in the higher income countries can look forward to levels of standards of living, levels of production that they knew pre-pandemic, it’s not the case with developing countries, it’s not the case with emerging economies,” Ryder said.

Source: Al Jazeera