Leaders Must Look to Workers to Fulfil the Promise of Recovery

How can leaders build back better while ensuring all workers are included and supported? Banner image: Shutterstock/only_kim

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event Empowering Workers, Delivering a Jobs-rich Recovery took place on 13 July 2021 —watch the replay below!


Amidst the beach photos and handshakes at this year’s G7 meetings in the United Kingdom, there appeared to be some moments of genuine reflection. Leaders committed to “build back better, promising that no one “irrespective of age ethnicity or gender” should be left behind, and recognising that “this has not been the case with past crises”. Decisions taken in the next few months will determine whether leaders can fulfil that promise. They should start by talking to the working people who will experience the consequences of their actions.

The response to the coronavirus pandemic has shown just how important government action can be. The expansion—and in the United Kingdom’s case, creation—of job protection schemes has saved millions of jobs, and hopefully marks a final end to the “laissez-faire” approach that leaves workers to fend for themselves when their jobs are at risk. As the vaccination programme rolls forward, many are looking to roll back job support. But we’re not out of the woods yet.

First, while people in high-income countries are rapidly being vaccinated–67% of people in the United Kingdom have had at least one jab—in low-income countries less than 1% of people have been able to receive the vaccine. No one is safe from the coronavirus and its variants until everyone is safe, and the best job protection programme remains the effort to ensure equitable vaccine access around the world—including by waiving the intellectual property rights holding back efforts to share the vaccine recipes more widely.

Read more on the Forum Network: "Can we avoid a “pandemic scar" on youth?" by Flavia Colonnese, Policy and Advocacy Manager, European Youth Forum

Read more on the Forum Network: "Can we avoid a “pandemic scar” on youth? by Flavia Colonnese, Policy and Advocacy Manager, European Youth ForumRead more on the Forum Network: "Can we avoid a “pandemic scar” on youth? by Flavia Colonnese, Policy and Advocacy Manager, European Youth Forum

Second, we mustn’t withdraw job protection schemes too soon. We’ve seen throughout the pandemic that it’s been those already facing structural disadvantage in the labour market—the young, those in insecure jobs, and Black and minority ethnic workers—who’ve been hit hardest by job losses. Here in the United Kingdom, the unemployment rate for BME young workers has increased more than twice as fast as the unemployment rate for young white workers. While in some sectors workers are rapidly returning to their jobs in others, like the arts, businesses are still hit by operating restrictions and workers still need support. It would be a huge waste of the investment so far to allow these businesses to go to the wall now, and their workers’ skills to be lost. And it would worsen the inequality we’ve already seen grow.

Those workers who’ve lost their jobs need support, too. That means strengthening social protection safety nets—not cutting them as the United Kingdom government plans in September. And it means taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in job creation in the industries and services we need now. The urgency of a plan to tackle climate change is becoming clearer by the day; the terrifying, record heat rises in the United States and Canada this year are just one more sign that action is long overdue. Investing in the adaptations to our economy to tackle this should be job-creating—we estimate that over a million jobs could be created in climate change adaptation in the United Kingdom with the right investment. If we put in place genuine Just Transition plans that consult workers and their unions in high-carbon industries, we can ensure that this bout of industrial change doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past, which saw industrial change leave communities behind, and regional inequalities entrenched. Global leaders are talking about these issues. But they need to start acting. 

Read the latest OECD Employment Outlook 2021: Navigating the COVID-19 crisis and recovery and find out more about the challenges brought about by the crisis and the policies to address them

Read the latest OECD Employment Outlook 2021: Navigating the COVID-19 crisis and recovery and find out more about the challenges brought about by the crisis and the policies to address them

It’s not just the challenge of climate change that could offer opportunities to deliver decent jobs. The importance of our care workforce—and just how overstretched and underpaid they are—has been exposed time and time again over the past year and a half. On the front line of responding to the crisis, care workers right across the OECD are low paid, face insecure hours and have little career progression. As the population ages, we know that demand for these jobs will grow. Now is the time for governments to invest in a new model of care, offering more and better jobs.

Improving conditions for the care workforce—and for all keyworkers who got us through the pandemic—is a litmus test of whether governments have genuinely learnt from the experience of the pandemic. Avoiding the damaging austerity of the decade after the financial crisis is a start. But to truly embed a new way of working, governments need to get serious about involving and engaging these workers in shaping and improving their jobs. The OECD’s own research has shown that countries embracing collective bargaining—giving workers and their unions a key role in shaping workplace conditions—“is essential to help workers and companies adapt to changes in the labour market and ensure an inclusive and prosperous world of work. We’ve seen throughout the past year just how vital engaging workers has been: whether it’s listening to them on how best to work safely throughout a pandemic; negotiating new uses of digital technology; or understanding how structural racism plays out in the labour market and what we need to do to tackle it.

Leaders have talked to each other about how to build back better. Now they need to talk to the workers who can help them achieve that goal.

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Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Green recovery  Future of Work International Co-operation


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Frances O Grady

General Secretary, Trades Union Congress