In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses, truck drivers, grocery clerks and other essential workers were hailed as heroes.
"Now we are vilifying them … and this has long-term ramifications for our well-being," said Manuela Tomei, International Labor Organization assistant director-general for governance, rights, and dialogue.
"The work that these persons perform is absolutely essential for families and societies to function," she said, speaking Wednesday in Geneva. "So, the non-availability of their services would really result into a loss of well-being and the impossibility of ensuring safe lives to society at large."
And yet a new study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) finds essential workers are undervalued, underpaid and laboring under poor working conditions, exposed to treatment that "exacerbates employee turnover and labor shortages, jeopardizing the provision of basic services."
The U.N. agency's report classifies key workers into eight main occupation groups covering health, food systems, retail, security, cleaning and sanitation, transport, manual, and technical and clerical occupations.
Data from 90 countries show that during the COVID-19 crisis key workers suffered higher mortality rates than non-key workers overall, with transport workers being at highest risk.
The report found 29% of key workers globally are low paid, earning on average 26% less than other employees. It reports they tend to work long, unpredictable hours under poor conditions.
Tomei said inaction in improving sub-standard conditions of work is having consequences today.
"In a number of countries, these sectors are facing some labor shortages because people are increasingly reluctant to engage in work which is not fairly valued by society and rewarded in terms of better pay and also improved working conditions.
"So, we are facing a crisis right now," she added.
Richard Samans, director of the ILO research department, noted that a critical shortage of nurses in many countries is of particular concern.
"This affects the very life of people," he said Wednesday. "Many people in countries are facing long delays in treatment. In the event of a shock — some sort of a major health disruption or natural disaster or otherwise — if the system is already strained, it cannot handle the major influx of demand for those nursing services."
A new report by the World Health Organization warns the "widespread disruptions to health services" due to the COVID-19 pandemic "has resulted in a rapid acceleration in the international recruitment of health professionals," mainly from poor to rich countries, exacerbating shortages of this vital workforce in developing countries.
The ILO reports that countries are still experiencing supply shortages three years after WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. ILO research director Richard Samans attributes this to a scarcity of truck drivers due to lack of training and bad working conditions.
"In the event of a shock that increases the demand for certain types of products and services, if the underlying logistical infrastructure is not fit for purpose, then that affects the daily livelihood of people and, in some cases, their health and well-being," he said.
The ILO report also says key workers fare worse than non-key workers in both wealthy and poor countries, but ILO senior economist Janine Berg said the problems are worse in low-income countries.
"There are particularly severe problems, for example, in agricultural work in low-income countries, and the entire agricultural food chain is part of the key worker definition," she said. "There are also very severe problems in lower-income countries with respect to very low coverage in social protection."
The report urges nations to identify gaps in decent work and develop national strategies to address the problems facing key workers through strengthened policies and investment.
Among its recommendations, the report calls on governments to reinforce occupational health and safety systems, improve pay for essential workers, guarantee safe and predictable working hours through regulation, and increase access to training so that key workers can carry out their work effectively and safely.