ILO says 29 percent of essential workers underpaid globally

Tuesday March 21 2023
Workers in Ethiopia

Workers operating sewing machines in a garment factory at the Hawassa Industrial Park in Hawassa, Southern Ethiopia. International Labour Organisation says 29 percent of essential workers are underpaid globally. PHOTO | EYERUSALEM JIREGNA | AFP


Workers in eight key sectors, including health and security, may have played the most critical roles at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic but they have remained the most poorly paid globally and continue to work long hours and under indecent conditions, the United Nations (UN) labour body says.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) this week warned that countries need to improve working conditions and wages of these workers to prevent increasing employee turnover, which risks labour shortages in critical sectors.

In a report detailing the conditions under which essential workers do their jobs, the UN agency revealed that at least 29 percent of key workers in both developed and developing countries are underpaid.

The key workers are in the health, food production and delivery systems, retail, security, technical and clerical, cleaning and sanitation, transport and manual sectors – constituting roughly 52 percent of the global workforce.

Construction site

Workers at the affordable housing units at Pangani Redevelopment Site in Nairobi on January 21, 2022. PHOTO | NMG

Kenya ranked first


According to the report, of the 90 countries sampled, Kenya has the highest proportion of poorly paid key workers at 50 percent, and Uganda came fourth with 44 percent of its critical workers being underpaid. In comparison, only five percent of the essential sector employees in Portugal are underpaid.

Read: 13.9m Kenyan workers have no pension: Data

Low pay is defined as any amount less than $1.89 – that is two-thirds of the global hourly median wage, which currently stands at $2.84.

In Kenya, workers in key sectors earn 56 percent less than other workers, yet only 18 percent of the gap is explained by human resource components such as levels of education and work experience. In Uganda, the pay gap stands at 32 percent.

The global average pay gap stands at 17 percent, which is explained by the human capital components.

But low pay is not the only challenge facing the world’s essential workers. According to the report, majority of those who died from the Covid-19 pandemic were key workers infected in the line of duty, pointing to poor occupational safety.

Many of the essential workers are also unrepresented in trade unions, with only 16.5 percent of them globally being members of a trade union or a collective bargaining platform.

Read: Igad workers’ unions call on Gulf states to emulate Qatar labour rights

Other challenges

The report also reveals that at least 30.7 percent of the key workers are employed on a temporary basis and more than a quarter of them work for more than 40 hours a week. Nearly three in five are not covered by social protection programs and are mostly receiving less training than non-key workers.

ILO Director-General Gilbert Houngbo said the wages and working conditions of these workers who continued to work daily when the risk of Covid-19 was highest, should be improved to reflect their significance in society.

Gilbert Houngbo ILO

The Director-General of International Labour Organisation, Gilbert Houngbo . PHOTO | AFP

“Valuing key workers means ensuring that they receive adequate pay and work in good conditions. Decent work is an objective for all workers but it is particularly critical for key workers, who provide vital necessities and services both in good times and bad,” Houngbo said.

In a statement on March 15, 2023, ILO said countries should increase investments in the key sectors to ensure the continuity of essential services during future pandemics or other shocks such as natural disasters.

It also called for introduction of regulations to guarantee safe and predictable working hours for all employees; social protection especially paid sick leave; and ensuring high occupational health and safety standards.