1 May 2020 - 08:00 PM
COVID-19’s Toll on Latin American and Caribbean Workers, the Worst is Yet to Come
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The global COVID-19 pandemic has not only become a  public health threat but the paralysis of economic and labor activity has dealt a deep blow to the lives of millions of workers as their livelihoods are threatened in the short, medium or long term.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, in addition to the tragic loss of human life, there were huge losses on the labor scene, thousands of workers have been unemployed since the lockdown measures began.

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In Latin America and the Caribbean, in addition to the tragic loss of human life, there were huge losses on the labor scene, thousands of workers have been unemployed since the lockdown measures began, mainly affecting workers in retail trade, services, care jobs and all those immersed in the informal economy.

City closures, business closures, factories, schools and other measures to contain the spread of the virus have had a dramatic impact on the poorest populations, something that for some only reinforced existing inequalities.

Measures like quarantine become impossible to apply in the most vulnerable regions, because people simply cannot stay at home, as that would mean losing their jobs or not being able to eat. Making visible the structural problems rooted in these societies.

In this sense, the COVID-19 crisis also revealed the absence of basic social protection policies aimed at ensuring the safety of workers. Improvisation in the midst of the crisis revealed that governments are not prepared to safeguard the lives of their citizens, but are more concerned with protecting the economic interests of dominant groups and corporations.

Today, on May 1 as the pandemic rages on, the work dynamics in Latin America and the Caribbean have been affected and new challenges will rise in the aftermath of the crisis. 

COVID-19 impact in Latin America and the Caribbean

Although the forecasts for employment in Latin America and the Caribbean were not good before the spread of COVID-19, after the advent of the pandemic they only worsened.

"We are facing a massive destruction of jobs, and this poses a challenge of unprecedented magnitudes in the labor markets of Latin America and the Caribbean," the Regional Director of the International Labor Organization (ILO), Vinicius Pinheiro said. "From now on we know that at the same time that the health emergency is overcome, we will have to face a true reconstruction of our labor markets."

The catastrophic impact of the pandemic on the region, according to the ILO, would entail the loss of at least 14 million full-time workers, a figure that reflects both the redundancies and the temporary reduction in working hours.

Only in Brazil, one of the most unequal countries in the world according to Oxfam-Brazil, the crisis of the new coronavirus is expected to increase at least 2.5 million unemployed, which will clearly have an impact on poverty and extreme poverty rates.

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According to the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean(ECLAC) Alicia Barcena, the COVID-19 crisis could increase the number of poor in the region to 220 million, while the number of people living in extreme poverty would be 90 million.

For its part, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned that while thousands are losing their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 measures, it is expected that hunger and poverty will increase in the region that already had food security problems.

As reports from major organizations warned of the looming catastrophe and the results of the COVID-19 crisis can be seen in countries like Ecuador, Brazil, or Chile, the bombardment of images and videos materialized the working class, from whom it is inevitable to cross-sectionally read class, race, gender, origin, even age.

According to the organizations reports, the populations that saw their labor rights violated are mainly young people, who were already facing high rates of unemployment and underemployment; women, who mainly occupy care jobs, adults, internal and external migrants who lost their jobs and were unable to return to their families as in Peru and Bolivia, where hundreds of migrants faced difficulties in returning to their places of origin, having to endure subhuman treatment.

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Often, according to the ILO, the first to lose their jobs are those whose employment was already precarious, such as salespeople, waiters, kitchen staff, baggage handlers, cleaners, domestic workers, delivery workers, among others who are part of the informal economy.

Labor informality is a problem in Latin America and the Caribbean. There are at least 140 million people in the region working informally, representing about 54 per cent of workers, who lack recognized, registered, regulated or protected jobs under labour legislation and social protection. Now all those people face even worse conditions with the crisis.

"Among workers in the informal economy significantly affected by the crisis," says ILO, "women are over-represented in high-risk sectors: 42 percent of women workers work in these sectors, compared to 32 percent of men," so it represents a concern.

In Caribbean countries that are directly dependent on tourism, it is mainly women, heads of households, who are employed as domestic workers or maids in large hotels and mansions, most commonly for extremely low wages, which worsens their situation in the light of a pandemic.

It is for these reasons that as the pandemic takes its course, social protection should be seen as an investment, not an additional cost, as it plays a key role in mitigating the social and labour impact in a crisis of this magnitude.

Change or Utopia

Some analysts say that the pandemic has altered the traditional working logic by introducing new modalities such as home office or teleworking, which would mean the beginning of a new labor era. However, in the case of Latin America and the Caribbean a certain scepticism remains.

According to the ILO, from Feb. 1 to April 17 2020, 108 countries and territories announced at least 548 social protection measures aimed at mitigating the devastating effects of job losses, including teleworking.

The forced changes due to the pandemic made remote work a never-before-seen urgency, attaching importance to the digital world that has led to thinking about the possibility of a transition in labor relations and dynamics.

However, according to a report by the CEDLAS Study Center of the University of La Plata (Argentina) the possibility of working from home during the mandatory quarantine is the ideal of many, but the reality of few, taking into account the digital gaps in the region.

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In Argentina, for example, only a quarter of the employed population could perform the remote modality. Teleworking-compatible occupations have a higher proportion of informal workers, with lower levels of education, qualifications and wages.

At least 4.8 million workers, representing 40 percent of the employed, have no potential to migrate to teleworking, Cedlas highlights. This group includes domestic workers, construction workers, agricultural workers, transport workers, food workers, security guards and health workers, which could have an impact on increasing inequality and poverty.

In Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the region, according to a study by the consulting firm Captura Consulting found that unlike the richest countries, only Bolivians with a high socioeconomic level have been able to continue producing via teleworking.

According to the consulting firm, while 70 percent of the labor force suspended its activities in major cities, only one-third of it has been able to continue its work from home in an average of 5.4 hours a day. Although it is important to consider the precariousness of work already existing in some cases, for example, the Call Centers, a poorly paid and unhealthy job that employs thousands of young Bolivians every year and which have been able to adapt to teleworking.

In its report "The Opportunities of the Digitization in Latin America during COVID-19,"  ECLAC warns of how vulnerable segments such as older adults, low-income households and people living in rural areas will be excluded from the actions that they be adopted in terms of work and use digital technologies as tools, affirming that structural elements are important to take into account resilience.

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According to Antonio Alvarez Garcia, a researcher from the Latin American Area of the Fundación Alternativas (Spain), says that in countries such as Peru, Bolivia or El Salvador about 85 percent of citizens belonging to the lowest wealth quintile do not use the Internet, so excluding them from the process would only exacerbate existing inequalities.

In Ecuador, a country with more than 17 million inhabitants, only 253, 247 (eight percent) workers remain active through teleworking, said the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC).

On the other hand, it is not just a question of transitioning to the digital world, but of changing all the face-to-face logic to the virtual, for example, meetings, events and trainings that, when done so suddenly, will exert a certain pressure and stress on the workers who will ultimately feel more driven to do so by fear and need, Eva Rimbau, a professor of economics and specialist in flexible work explained. 

“Teleworking cannot be improvised. If it is done without planning, people will suffer a lot, it will not work and they will believe that the problem is working from home, when in reality the problem is doing it without planning, ” she added.

It will also be important to talk about new labor laws that protect workers as well as basic conditions and needs such as the availability of a workplace with minimal amenities, internet access, computer access. Even some labor rights advocates talk about the responsibility of employers to take on the cost of light and other services, if the companies or states encourage teleworking.

Post COVID-19 challenges: Facing the pandemic ensuring the safety and health of the working class

While the pandemic has already left thousands of deaths in the region, uncertainty seems to be a constant state of the crisis for now, as experts say that problems such as health and employment will only depend to a large extent on the response capacity governments bear.

However, something that is repeated in the reports of different organizations is that the impact of the new coronavirus has exposed an urgent need to strengthen health and social protection systems in order to mitigate future crises, but mainly to protect the life of the working class.

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"The safety and health of our entire workforce is paramount today. In the face of an infectious outbreak, how we protect our workers will clearly determine the degree of safety in our communities and the resilience of our businesses as this evolves," ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said.

"Only through the implementation of occupational safety and health measures can we guarantee the lives of workers, their families and communities as a whole, and ensure continuity of work and economic survival," Ryder added.

In this sense, organizations such as the ILO, ECLAC and others present some paths and challenges that governments should take into account

- Protect workers in the workplace.

- Support micro,  small and medium enterprises. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 99 percent of companies respond to this sector.

- Access to universal health so as not to condition it on workers' employment status.

- Think of the possibility of a fixed Universal Basic Income for the most vulnerable sectors.

- Strengthen dialogue and consensus among government, business and labor union representatives to build common strategies.

- It is urgent to think about policies with a gender approach that address the gaps and needs of care jobs.

With Latin America and the Caribbean plunged into their own crisis of geopolitical instability, when just a few months ago various social protests were taking to the streets, the COVID-19 pandemic is taking its course amid United States illegal sanctions on Venezuela and Cuba, threats of militarization in the Caribbean, a de facto government in Bolivia, the political negligence of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or those of Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, that is, the pandemic is taking place at a time of profound weakness for most of the governments of the region.

It is difficult to deal with a pandemic of this magnitude, but the impact of COVID-19 reveals some key elements about the labor situation in Latin America and the Caribbean. First, the absence and importance of social debate as a tool to understand reality in the region has become evident.

For example, while most governments in the region have undertaken economic assistance measures for the most vulnerable sectors, the fact that poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean is so closely linked to informal employment means that, paradoxically, the most needy are the least served by some of the more general policies. This shows that most governments are unaware of the true reality of their countries.

The region presents serious structural problems that are reflected in poverty and inequality, so it will be important to know first how marked are the social gaps in each country and to generate policies that guarantee the well-being of the majority of the population and not of a few.

It is necessary to aim for social transformation, to think of a new model that will make the relations in the structures of society and the states more sustainable. 

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