Dramatic changes in work and livelihoods over the last few weeks as a result of the Covid-19 crisis showed the fragility of both theoretical frameworks and public policies. Earlier research on labour markets lacked emphasis on how work and employment respond to short term shocks, the vulnerabilities that they generate, the behavioural changes that they induce, the inequalities that they reflect and those that they create. The onset of a global depression called for a better understanding of the trajectories of labour and employment in different sectors and among different groups. This was needed to both anticipate urgent problems that needed be addressed in the short term, and an understanding of the changes that underwent both in terms of production and work. New patterns of vulnerability, behaviour and policy goals which emerged called for reflexion and innovation. New policies were being put in place without the time for adequate reflexion, coordination and assessment.
In such a situation, the ISLE, in collaboration with the Institute for Human Development and the ILO, held a Virtual Conference on the Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for Labour and Employment in India. The Conference discussions revolved around three broad themes:
There has been a diversity of impacts of the pandemic in India. States such as Maharashtra and Gujarat suffered a higher incidence and spread. The red zones included major urban centres with industry and services that contributed to about 40 per cent of India’s GDP. Workers in the unorganized sector and informal workers in the organized sector suffered catastrophic income losses. States such as Punjab and Karnataka are still facing acute labour shortages, even while unemployment reaching record highs of more than 25 per cent. Men and women are affected in different ways. Migrants being particularly vulnerable. Labour market institutions that worked adequately within a stable process of economic growth proved to be ill-adapted when economic parameters suddenly changed. Formal and informal economies responded in different ways. State policies to offset adverse effects of crisis failed to reach those who were targeted or had unexpected effects on those who were neglected, and there was a lack of coordination between actions in different areas of government. Reflection were provided on both what is happening today, in an attempt to map out the impacts on work and income, and the vulnerabilities that have emerged from labour market shocks, combined with illness, death and exclusion, notably among migrants and women. Governments are struggling with the need to retain labour in re-opening economic activities, especially those with a large proportion of casual and temporary and seasonal migrant workers, such as construction. A new pattern of regulation may be needed. Public health systems need to be strengthened, particularly at the primary level, and better connected with the world of work.
The on-going economic crisis has both demand and supply side aspects. While demand has plummeted, supply lines have also been disrupted, both across the globe and within countries too.
Countries have struggled to rethink economic and social policies to respond to these challenges. Many have refashioned social security in the face of widespread and sustained income losses. A wide variety of measures aimed to prevent or slow loss of employment have been implemented. Policies to maintain demand face real or imagined constraints on the extent of fiscal stimulus that developing countries can afford. Developing countries have differed in their targeting of stimulus packages. These policies have had very mixed results. A lot of insight was gained from looking at international experiences in fashioning employment, social protection and stimulus packages.
Covid-19 brought about many changes in our ways of behaviour – from abandoning handshakes to maintaining social distancing. Many enterprises, particularly those in IT services, education, entertainment and even administration, have gone very substantially on-line with working from home. As manufacturing factories re-open what will be the impact of social distancing requirements? How will assembly lines function and will there a push for automation and robotization? Many value chains have been re-organized in the constrained spaces. Workers in the unorganized sector have also re-fashioned ways of functioning and utilizing digital spaces. Has Covid-19 speeded up the changes in global value chains, in automation and digitization that were already underway?
There could be substantial reduction, if not collapse, of some sectors like tourism and international travel. Changes in global inter-dependence are also likely, with a reduction or restructuring of international trade and global value chains. The share of health care in GDP is likely to increase across countries. Forms of work and its organization could take new forms.
All of these future developments have very considerable implications for India’s society and economy. While looking at these questions related to the likely impact of Covid-19 on the future of work, we also need to consider the adequacy of our theoretical analyses and frameworks. For instance, do we need to change the analytical boundaries between exogenous and endogenous shocks? Do we need to reconsider the employment relationship, the role of the state or the framework of labour market regulation?
Plans for the Conference
The Indian Society of Labour Economics provided a network of expertise on many of the above mentioned issues, and they are also at the core of the programme of Institute for Human Development, which provides the Secretariat for the ISLE. On these issues, high quality, independent research was essential to examine patterns and relationships, and provide scenarios for the future.
IHD, ILO and the ISLE organised a Virtual Conference on the Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for work and employment. The Conference was held on 8-9 June 2020, during 2.30pm to 8.00pm, in four sessions, each built around a Webpanel discussion. Each Webpanel consisted of five presentations of about 15 minutes each, followed by a question and answer session.
In the beginning of the Conference a presentation based on a survey of ISLE members on Covid-19 and Implications for Labour and Employment was made. The results of the Conference has helped in setting the terms of debate for future work on these issues by IHD, ISLE and the ILO, India Office.
Schedule of the Virtual Conference
June 8, 3.15pm to 5.30 pm
Session 1: Impact and Strategies: India’s Responses and Trajectories
June 8, 5.45pm to 8.00 pm
Session 2: Impact and Strategies: Sectors and Groups
June 9, 3 to 5.15 pm
Session 3: International Experiences in Employment, Social Protection and Economic Strategy
June 9, 5.30 to 7.30 pm
Session 4: Perspectives: Emerging Employment Scenario and the Future of Work in India
June 9, 7.45 to 8.00 pm
Closing Session: Policy and Research Challenges