Nearly half of the global workforce at risk of losing livelihoods due to covid: WHO

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In a joint statement issued Tuesday with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the International Labour Office (ILO), the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that the pandemic has led to a dramatic loss of human life worldwide and presents an unprecedented challenge to public health and food systems, as millions of enterprises face an existential threat.

Informal economy workers are particularly vulnerable because the majority lack social protection and access to quality health care and have lost access to productive assets, the joint statement noted. “Without the means to earn an income during lockdowns, many are unable to feed themselves and their families. For most, no income means no food, or, at best, less food and less nutritious food.”

The pandemic has been affecting the entire food system and has laid bare its fragility, the apex health agency said.

Border closures, trade restrictions and confinement measures have been preventing farmers from accessing markets, including for buying inputs and selling their produce, and agricultural workers from harvesting crops, thus disrupting domestic and international food supply chains and reducing access to healthy, safe and diverse diets, the statement said.

Focussing on millions of livelihoods at risk due to the pandemic, the WHO said that the breadwinners lose jobs, fall ill and die, the food security and nutrition of millions of women and men are under threat, with those in low-income countries, particularly the most marginalized populations, which include small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples, being hardest hit.

“Millions of agricultural workers – waged and self-employed – while feeding the world, regularly face high levels of working poverty, malnutrition and poor health, and suffer from a lack of safety and labour protection as well as other types of abuse,” said the statement.

“With low and irregular incomes and a lack of social support, many of them are spurred to continue working, often in unsafe conditions, thus exposing the selves and their families to additional risks,” it said.

The global organisations have highlighted that when experiencing income losses, the workers may resort to negative coping strategies, such as distress sale of assets, predatory loans or child labour.

Migrant agricultural workers are particularly vulnerable, because they face risks in their transport, working and living conditions and struggle to access support measures put in place by governments, the statement said.

Guaranteeing the safety and health of all agri-food workers – from primary producers to those involved in food processing, transport and retail, including street food vendors – as well as better incomes and protection, will be critical to saving lives and protecting public health, people’s livelihoods and food security, it said.

The organisations have said that in the in the covid-19 crisis food security, public health, and employment and labour issues, in particular workers’ health and safety, converge.

“Adhering to workplace safety and health practices and ensuring access to decent work and the protection of labour rights in all industries will be crucial in addressing the human dimension of the crisis,” the joint statement said.

The organisations have called for immediate and purposeful action to save lives and livelihoods should include extending social protection towards universal health coverage and income support for those most affected. These include workers in the informal economy and in poorly protected and low-paid jobs, including youth, older workers, and migrants. Particular attention must be paid to the situation of women, who are over-represented in low-paid jobs and care roles.

“Different forms of support are key, including cash transfers, child allowances and healthy school meals, shelter and food relief initiatives, support for employment retention and recovery, and financial relief for businesses, including micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. In designing and implementing such measures it is essential that governments work closely with employers and workers,” the statement said.

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