Pandemic widening gender gaps in labour market: ILO expert

June 07, 2021 - 08:21

Valentina Barcucci, a labour economist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Việt Nam, talks to Việt Nam News reporter Khánh Vân about solutions to support and protect workers from the COVID-19 pandemic


Valentina Barcucci, Labour Economist, International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Việt Nam. — Photo courtesy of the ILO 

Valentina Barcucci, a labour economist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Việt Nam, talks to Việt Nam News reporter Khánh Vân about solutions to support and protect workers from the COVID-19 pandemic

Could you give an overall assessment of the impacts of the COVID-19 on the labour market of Việt Nam?

The recent months and the unexpected, new COVID-19 wave have hit an economy and labour market that were already weakened by the impact of the pandemic. In 2020, despite the relatively limited health crisis, Việt Nam’s economy suffered, as the global crisis hit Việt Nam through international supply chains, but also due to the restrictions in place domestically, which affected services, especially tourism.

The labour market suffered especially in the second quarter when women lost 11.2 per cent of total weekly hours compared to the fourth quarter of 2019, and men lost 8.8 per cent. Many stopped working or withdrew from the labour force, mostly women. While unemployment (and, to be more precise, female unemployment mostly) increased in 2020, withdrawal from the labour force was larger in magnitude.

Overall, Việt Nam’s labour force was smaller at the end of 2020 than it had been in 2017. And even though overall working hours recovered by the end of 2020, that was mostly due to the fact that those women and men who were still working took up additional hours to make up for income losses.

The type of impact that COVID-19 had in Việt Nam in 2020 is broadly comparable with the results of the most recent ILO analysis World Employment and Social Outlook 2021. Across the world, workers experienced a severe drop in working hours (an estimated 8.8 per cent in total, equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs). This was a result of a combination of reduced hours of those who remained employed, and employment losses, including increased unemployment and withdrawal from the labour force.

Between January and March, economic activity usually slows down in Việt Nam, as families prepare for Tết (Lunar New Year). In this quarter, according to the General Statistics Office, a total of 9.1 million people were still adversely affected, from an economic perspective, by COVID-19. These included workers who faced a range of challenges, including having reduced working hours or taking alternate shifts, having experienced a drop in their earnings, having lost their jobs, or others.

This was the situation in the labour market when the height of the current COVID-19 wave hit Việt Nam. The necessary social distancing measures have made it impossible to work for millions of workers in services and manufacturing, including in key industrial zones. These are workers whose earnings already suffered through 2020, and whose family members might have had to stop working last year. And the global ILO report emphasises that across the world, like in Việt Nam, many businesses, particularly micro and small enterprises, are facing a highly uncertain future.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions imposed in different localities, many workers have been forced to turn to unstable jobs and low income or even been laid off. What do you think about the Vietnamese Government’s response to support workers affected by the COVID-19? What should the Government do to help workers overcome difficulties?

An ILO analysis of policy response implemented by governments across the world clearly shows that the larger the size of government support as a share of GDP, the lower the labour market impact of the crisis. Governments that have supported the economy, provided economic relief to workers and their families, protected jobs, and helped productive enterprises survive through the crisis.

Still, some groups have been affected more than others, and government response should take that into consideration as they prioritise their support measures. The new global ILO report finds that the highly uneven impact of the crisis has exacerbated pre-existing decent work deficits and social inequalities. This finding applies to Việt Nam as well.

It is apparent that some groups of workers were especially affected in 2020, and entered 2021 in an especially vulnerable labour market situation. Informal workers represent a large share of those who withdrew from the labour market in 2020 and have not yet gone back into it. Women were among the hardest hit groups as well. They are overrepresented in manufacturing, which has been heavily affected. Between 2019 and 2020, the share of young women (15-24) and older women (from 55) in the total labour force dropped from 28 to 24.7 per cent. It will be critical to make sure that these groups receive support.

Recent research by the ILO in Viet Nam shows the COVID-19 pandemic has not only exacerbated existing inequalities but also created new gender gaps. Do you have any recommendations to help deal with these issues?

We have found that, for example, as a result of the pandemic, gender gaps have widened in the labour market. Female and male unemployment were virtually the same in 2019, while by the end of the fourth quarter of 2020, a one percentage point gap had appeared between adult female and male unemployment rates, and a four percentage point gap between youth female and male rates. Labour force participation of women dropped by 4.8 percentage points in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the end of 2019, while men’s fell 3.9 percentage points. Most women who stopped working in 2020 exited the labour force.

This is in line with what was found by our global report. Across the world, women’s employment declined by 5 per cent in 2020 compared with 3.9 per cent for men. Additionally, 90 per cent of women who lost their jobs in 2020 exited the labour force, implying that their working lives are likely to be disrupted over an extended period. In Việt Nam, most women who left the labour force in 2020 have not yet gone back to economic activity.

Our global report also found that women have suffered on two fronts: disproportionate job losses on the one hand, and increased unpaid working time on the other. Once again, this is relevant to Việt Nam.

Before COVID-19, women carried a measurable double burden, consisting of a number of working hours comparable to that of men, plus a number of hours in household work that more than doubled that of men. In 2020, women were the first to drop out of the labour force, probably due to a combination of more precarious employment arrangements and their childcare responsibilities, heightened by school closures. When schools reopened, women were more likely than men to work more than usual, possibly to make up for lost income. This is likely to have made their double burden even heavier.

As long as women’s double burden is not only well known but traditionally accepted and encouraged, Việt Nam will not achieve its objectives of inclusive growth. If the country wants to keep progressing towards a modern, upper-middle-income society and economy, the only option is to start a genuine process of challenging and eradicating traditional gender inequalities.

The pandemic has hit many industrial parks, affecting thousands of workers. Could you give any suggestions to help protect workers from the virus, particularly in industrial parks where a large number of labourers work in close proximity?

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in Việt Nam, the ILO and WHO came together to assist the Government of Việt Nam to develop the ‘Guideline on prevention and control of COVID-19 for employees in the workplace and dormitory’. It clearly describes the responsibilities of employees on the one hand (prior to the arrival at the workplace, at the workplace and upon leaving the workplace) and of employers. It also covers the responsibilities of health workers at health facilities, and what to do when symptoms of COVID-19 are detected in the workplace or in a dormitory. These guidelines were disseminated to all 63 provinces and representatives of workers and employers were trained. — VNS