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Labour Precariousness - Is It Due to Covid Alone?

Prof. N. Nirmala

Labour precariousness in general, relates to unstable, uncertain and insecure position of workforce. From Marxian point of view, it connotes the weak bargaining position of the workers created by a large supply of unemployed workers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) views precarious work as a means for employers to shift risks and responsibilities onto workers. The European Union (EU) defines precarious work as a combination of a low level of certainty over job continuity; no control over working hours; low level of protection and little opportunity for training and career progression.

The new Corona virus  (COVID-19) pandemic  has definitely caused a devastating impact on the lives of the majority of the world population and the economy at one stretch. According to Thomas L.Friedman, this pandemic is the logical outcome of our increasingly destructive wars against nature. As per the ILO and United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) projections, the global labour force (which includes the workforce in industry, manufacturing, service, the informal sectors and the unemployed) is the hardest target of Covid-19.

Initial Projections of ILO and UNGA

As per ILO reports, almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers (representing the most vulnerable in the labour market) out of 3.3 billion global workforce have suffered massive damage to their capacity to earn a living. In urban areas, moreover, these workers also tend to work in economic sectors that “not only carry a high risk of virus infection but are also directly impacted by lockdown measures” (waste recyclers, street vendors and food servers, construction workers, transport workers and domestic workers).

ILO projections also reveal that more than 25 million workers are going to go jobless in the near future owing to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis. Around 6.6 million jobless claims are in US which is approximately thirty times of 2,30,000 jobless claims (since Trump took office) reflects the intensity of COVID impact on labour unemployment. ILO Director-General Guy Ryder noted that at the start of the year – before COVID-19 spread worldwide - global unemployment already stood at around 190 million.

Factors Contributing to Labour Precariousness

It is not first time that the humanity is facing the pandemic situation. For centuries, it has been subjected to the onslaughts of natural epidemics, confining to specific regions of the world (small fox in Japan and Mexico) and pandemics extending worldwide (influenza, cholera, HIV\AIDS) killing millions of world population on the one hand and adversely affecting the world economy on the other.

Apart from the suffering through natural epidemics and pandemics, the workers of the world had been subjected to the man-made recessions (a period of temporary economic decline during which trade and industrial activity are reduced) imbibed in the capitalist system. For instance, the economic crisis of 1830’s and the impact of laissez faire policy adopted (less government interference in the economy) during 1870’s has led to large scale unemployment and loss of livelihood resources to the downtrodden; the wall street crash and its consequent destruction (1929-32) of the entire European union economy; the pursuit of markets by monopoly capital (big powers) which was one of the reasons for the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent establishment of International Monetary Fund (IMF) had an adverse impact on the lives of the working class worldwide.

In the name of economic reforms the biggest blow unleashed by the capitalist ruling classes on the workers of the world in the last quarter of the twentieth century is the adoption of policy of globalization, liberalization and privatization (LPG). It has resulted in heavy job losses and denial of livelihood resources and ultimately led to slowdown of the economy itself. Post economic reform period has also seen an increase in informalisation and casualisation of large-scale workforce. The global financial crisis of 2008-09, which shook labour markets for months, had caused a 22-million spike in unemployment across the globe, according to the ILO reports.

Intensity of Economic Effects of Covid

The rapidly intensifying economic effects of COVID-19 on the world of work are proving to be far worse than the 2008-9 financial crisis, with cutbacks equivalent to nearly 200 million full-time workers expected in the next three months alone, the UN labour agency said in April, 2020. Workers in four sectors that have experienced the most “drastic” effects of the disease and falling production are: food and accommodation (144 million workers), retail and wholesale (482 million); business services and administration (157 million); and manufacturing (463 million).Current lockdown measures have impacted these workers significantly, forcing many of them to return to rural areas, ILO explained. Brazil and Nigeria had a similar level of informal employment as India, and faced the same risks

Some economists forecast that world economic growth could slow down to 1 percent from 2.6 last year, which would mean a number of countries will be driven into cyclic recessions. The World Class economists are coming out with short term measures for the revival of the world economy. Noble laureates Amartys Sen and Kailash Satyarthi and economist Kaushik Basu are among the 225 global leaders who have jointly called for a meeting of the G20 nations to agree to a USD 2.5 trillion corona virus global health and economic recovery plan.

Call for Global Solidarity and Response

The ILO being a tripartite body has given a frantic call for the policy responses on providing urgent relief measures to the workers, especially in the informal sectors and the businesses, particularly smaller enterprises. This is echoed in the words of ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, “for millions of workers, no income means no food, no security and no future. Millions of businesses around the world are barely breathing. They have no savings or access to credit. These are the real faces of the world of work. If we don’t help them now, these enterprises will simply perish.”

The desperate need of a global solidarity in the fight against corona virus pandemic has been incessantly given by the international organizations, UNGA, ILO and WHO. But most countries acting on their own accord with little regard to advice from bodies like the WHO. Healthcare systems in the worst-affected countries are at breaking point. This is reflected in an emotional statement issued by the World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He warned that the failures of some leaders to stop their countries’ spiralling outbreaks mean there would be no return to normal “for the foreseeable future”. Without taking any names, he said “too many countries are headed in the wrong direction” with the pandemic and some were not taking the proper steps to curb infections.

Some of the renowned political and economic analysts are of the view that the capitalist ruling governments are resorting to such actions which are likely to accelerate the protectionist tendencies and flaring up trade wars by imposition of travel barriers. This may pave the way for a depression similar to the 1930s, lasting well beyond the immediate impact of the virus. As rightly pronounced by Karl Marx which is echoed in the observations of world class economists, precarious work and casualisation are inherent in the capitalism system itself.

In this period of deepening economic crisis, the working class has only one option before them, that is, to get out of their illusions and fatalism around trickle-down theories and labour flexibility promoted by the advocates of temp work and informalisation of work and start struggling for better wages, social security and an equitable share in labour-enabled profits. For the workers of world, this is the right time to remember the clarion call given by Karl Marx

‘Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains’.


Prof. (Dr.) N. Nirmala , Retired Professor of Law, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam.

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