Essential workers are considered everyday heroes, and this has never been clearer than during the outbreak of the March 2020 Covid-19 pandemic when essential workers left the safety of their homes to nurse the sick, clean the buses and ensure the safety and security of citizens.
Essential or key workers refer to a person who ensures that society functions properly. They include healthcare workers, sanitization workers, security officers, transportation workers, food system workers, technicians, and clerical workers.
A report published by the International Labour Organization (ILO) titled the Value of Essential Workers revealed essential workers faced elevated risks of contracting the Covid-19 virus than non-key workers, because of their greater exposure to the virus.
In 90 countries where data was available, key workers make up 52 per cent of the workforce. However, the share is lower in high-income countries (34 per cent), where economic activities are more diversified.
The mortality rates varied among key workers. Health workers had high levels of contact with infected patients, however, their mortality rates were lower than those of transport workers, who suffered the highest mortality rates.
The report underscored the poor working conditions of key workers during the pandemic who faced increased incidents of threats and verbal abuse during the pandemic.
Key workers faced additional health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic because of their physical presence at workplaces and contact with clients. This was more common for workers in transportation, security, and cleaning.
Long working hours, low wages and deficits in social protection
On average, 29 per cent of key employees are low-paid, regardless of the country’s level of development.
Key employees earn 26 per cent less than other employees, with only two-thirds of this gap being accounted for by education and experience.
In the food industry, the share of low-paid key employees is particularly high accounting for 47 per cent. However, sanitisation and cleaning workers are among the lowest-paid employees.
These sectors, especially in high-income countries, employ a large share of international migrants.
Along with low wages, more than 46 per cent of key employees in low-income countries work long hours, while a substantial share of key workers around the world has irregular schedules or short hours.
Long working hours are more common in transport, where nearly 42 per cent of key workers across the globe work for more than 48 hours a week.
According to the ILO, social protection for essential workers is lacking in several countries where nearly 60 per cent of key workers in low- and middle-income countries lack some form of social protection.
This is more so common in low-income countries where only 17 per cent of key workers have social protection.