A labourer works on a construction site near Kolkata, India, on May 2. Some two-thirds of all workers in the Asia-Pacific region are employed informally, often on low wages, in hazardous conditions and without a contract. Photo: EPA-EFE
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

Asia-Pacific workers deserve decent jobs, healthcare and social protection

  • Faced with the challenges of climate change, ageing populations and digitalisation, governments must act urgently to protect their workforce
  • Active labour market policies, universal healthcare and social protection are all needed if countries are to avoid losing their engine of growth

Most of the 2.1 billion-strong workforce in the Asia-Pacific are denied access to decent jobs, healthcare and social protection. However, there are policies and tools governments can use to remedy these deficiencies and ensure the rights and aspirations of these workers and their families are upheld, and that they remain the engine of economic growth for the region.

A report due to be released on September 6, “Social Outlook for Asia and the Pacific: The Workforce We Need”, offers solutions to immediately address alarming trends that both preceded Covid-19 and were exacerbated by the pandemic.

While 243 million more people were pushed into poverty during the pandemic, it is estimated that up to half of all people in the region had already been surviving without cash, a third without necessary medicine or treatment, and a quarter without enough food, at some point. This can not only lower productivity, which has fallen below the global average, but also tax revenues and future economic output.

With two-thirds of all workers in the region employed informally, often with low wages, in hazardous conditions and without a contract, half of the workforce is on the brink of poverty. People in the region are also at a higher risk of being pushed into poverty by health spending than anywhere else in the world, causing inequalities to further widen.

With more than half of all people being excluded from social protection, pandemics, disasters, economic downturns, or normal life events – such as falling ill, becoming pregnant or getting old – often have a detrimental impact on households’ well-being and life prospects.

The reality is harsh: the region’s workers are generally ill-equipped to unlock new opportunities and fulfil life aspirations for themselves and their families. But they also face ongoing challenges emanating from the megatrends of climate change, ageing societies and digitalisation.


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‘Come and eat’: Sri Lanka soup kitchen opens its doors to the hungry
Climate-induced natural disasters cause businesses to relocate and jobs to disappear, disproportionately affecting rural communities. Digital technologies are bringing disruptive change to the world of work and the digital gap is intensifying inequalities in opportunities, income and wealth.

Population ageing means that the number of older people will double by 2050, making policies to support active and healthy ageing ever more urgent.

None of these vulnerabilities is inevitable. With the right policies, the region’s workforce can become more productive, healthier and protected.

First, active labour market policies, through lifelong learning and skill development, can support a green and just transition into decent employment and improve access to basic opportunities and adequate standards of living.


Unblocking sewers by hand while wading through excrement, a minority occupation in Pakistan

Unblocking sewers by hand while wading through excrement, a minority occupation in Pakistan

Harnessing synergies between active labour market policies and social protection can help workers upgrade their skills and transition into decent employment while smoothing consumption and avoiding negative coping strategies during spells of unemployment or other shocks.

Second, extending social health protection to all can significantly improve workers’ health, income security and productivity. Covid-19 showed the weakness of a status quo in which 60 per cent of the region’s workers finance their own healthcare and receive no sickness benefits.


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A focus on primary healthcare as well as curative health protection is needed, also to support healthy and active ageing. People who are chronically ill or live with a disability must be included in healthcare strategies. Given the large informal economy across the region, extending social health protection is the key policy instrument for achieving universal health coverage in the region.

Third, a basic package of universal child, old age and disability social protection schemes, set at global average benefit levels, would slash regional poverty by half.

Such income security would improve the workforce’s resilience. Extending social protection to all requires an increase in public spending of between 2 and 6 per cent of GDP, an investment well worth its cost.

What Asia-Pacific must focus on in its post-pandemic recovery plans

Action is long overdue. The policy recommendations set out in the “Social Outlook” report are a priority for most countries in the region. They require bold but necessary reforms. For most countries, these reforms are affordable but may require a reprioritisation of expenditures and tax, supported by tax reform.

Decent employment for all and an expansion of social protection and healthcare should form the foundations of a strong social contract between the state and its citizens – one where mutual roles and responsibilities are clear and where workers are given the security to fulfil their potential and be the force for achieving the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development in the Asia-Pacific.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is a UN undersecretary-general and executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)