The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the economy hard. Global GDP is estimated to have fallen by 3.5 in 2020, and even more steeply in parts of the UNECE region. International trade has been disrupted. Progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals has slowed down at a time when it would be critical to accelerate. Up to 85 percent of all workers globally were affected by COVID-19 related restrictions at some point. An estimated 8.8 percent of working hours were lost in 2020, four times as many as in the global financial crisis.
Policies to deal with the pandemic must be innovative, sustainable, inclusive and human-centred. The immediate focus on preserving existing jobs and firms needs to be complemented with more long-term approaches of creating more sustained growth and better jobs. These are some of the conclusions of a peer learning roundtable jointly organized by UNECE and ILO as part of the Regional Forum on Sustainable Development of the UNECE Region. The online event brought together 90 policy makers and representatives of the business community and civil society to discuss how labour market policies, as well as policies strengthening innovation, trade and infrastructure can help to create sustainable growth and a human-centred future of work post-COVID-19.
The impact of the pandemic on labour markets would have been even worse if companies and consumers had not adjusted to the restrictions with the help of innovative technologies. Electronic commerce and remote working have profoundly transformed many sectors, and these changes may be here to stay. But the past 12 months have shown clearly that not everybody is equally well-positioned to cope with this new world of working, and that existing vulnerabilities are even being exacerbated, including for women, youths and people that lack adequate digital connectivity.
Labour market policies need to be adjusted flexibly to the differential impact which the interplay of the pandemic, the resulting restrictions, and the technological responses to them create for different sectors, regions and social groups. Tripartite dialogues between Governments, trade unions and employers’ associations based on timely assessments of labour market outcomes are essential for getting the policy response right. “It is very important that policies in a time of crisis have broad support. You have to build coalitions, and there is no better way of doing so than having sound and detailed information. And for that, works like the ILO assessments are crucial.” said Miguel Cabrita, Deputy to the Minister of Labour and Solidarity and Social Security of Portugal.
In the more medium-term, achieving sustainable growth, full employment and decent work for all in the wake of the pandemic will depend also on structural policies affecting the direction of innovation, the resilience of trade and the quality of infrastructure.
The pandemic has given a boost to innovations not only in the medical field, but also in the digital economy. However, UNECE studies show the need for more policy support, particularly to innovative start-ups to recover better. “We are looking forward to implementing the recommendations from UNECE’s comparative assessment of innovation policy in the region and from the Innovation for Sustainable Development Review of Georgia”, said Annie Vashakmadze, Head of Donor and International Relations at the Innovation and Technology Agency of Georgia. Finding the right balance between policy measures that cushion the short-term impact of the pandemic and measures that provide the basis for a sustained recovery is a key policy challenge. Investing in education to build the right skills for the digital economy will be critical for achieving SDG 8.
The pandemic has disrupted cross-border value chains at the global and the regional level. Trade has been a conduit for spreading the negative shocks caused by the pandemic between countries. Rebuilding trade, making value chains more resilient and promoting economic integration will have to be a key component of the recovery from the pandemic. One of the main accelerators of regional development is trade facilitation. Within the framework of the UN Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA), efforts are under way to develop action plans to implement the SPECA Trade Facilitation Strategy. UNECE is supporting countries in their efforts to make trade more resilient through its suite of standards and recommendations on electronic business processes and Single Window, and through its COVID-19 impact assessments, which provide evidence-based recommendations for policies to make supply chains more resilient.
Promoting resilience within our communities, especially the vulnerable members of society, is key to recovering better. Enhanced resilience will need vast amounts of new investment for infrastructure and public services. National coffers have been drained in most countries by the spending during the pandemic to keep the economy going. So there is a greater drive to mobilise the private sector through PPP schemes. “The positive news is that UNECE’s People-first PPP model has resilience at its core and is thus ‘fit for purpose’ to deliver the kind of post-pandemic infrastructure and public services with people as the main beneficiaries”, said Iryna Novikova, Deputy Minister of Economy of Ukraine. People-first PPPs can help countries in a very practical way to deliver key public services and critical infrastructure by putting people as the main beneficiaries and sustainable development at their core.
“The pandemic has been a dramatic event for all of us in different ways. But there are indeed ways of building something better in its aftermath,” concluded Elisabeth Tuerk, Director, Economic Cooperation and Trade Division, UNECE. “And that will be possible if we get the policies right, and if we all work together across the different areas of expertise.”