When digital and face-to-face meet to support workers in the pandemic

When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, counsellors from the public employment services in Morocco decided to be innovative and try and reach people with no means to connect to digital services to ask for help. They headed directly to both remote rural and urban areas where low-skilled workers with no access to the internet live. Once there, they explained how to get support from the government to face the crisis.

What the Moroccan civil servants did was to change their delivery methods and services to accommodate the needs of people who could not reach their offices, either digitally or physically, during a hard-hitting lockdown.

Morocco was not the only country facing the challenge of rethinking and reformulating how employees and unemployed people could be supported during the pandemic: several countries developed measures to cushion the socio-economic impact of the pandemic all over Europe, and beyond.

Workers and the pandemic: short and long-term action needed

A study published in 2021 by the European Training Foundation about active labour market policies, transition, and skills development during the Covid-19 crisis, explored public employment responses to help shocked economies. From support to businesses and individuals, to measures to foster employment, to the adaptation of services, the report - which was drafted by the Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini - identified innovative approaches that had been developed to help people deal with an increasingly uncertain situation.

Indeed, responses could not be delayed. As the International Labour Organisation has indicated, 114 million jobs were lost in 2020 compared to 2019, affecting mainly women and young workers and generating ever-increasing social inequalities. Workers from developed countries were able to adapt more easily to a growingly digitised job market, while ones from developing countries were frequently left behind.

Backing people and companies

With an eye on short-term results, most labour market policies responses aimed at keeping businesses afloat and avoiding job losses. In several cases, governments would take on board the financial losses faced by companies, so as to ensure that workers would not lose their jobs all together, even though they may have been forced to work less. This was the case, for example, in Egypt, Kosovo, Serbia, Turkey, North Macedonia and Russia. In countries with extensive informal economies other measures were implemented in addition.

Georgia, North Macedonia and Morocco launched short-term responses such as cash transfers as unemployment benefits targeting mainly informal workers. Jordan launched Takaful, a cash transfer from the National Aid Fund that reached 200,000 families from vulnerable groups and workers in the informal sector. 

And for those who, under the lockdown, could not access their workplaces to collect their wages, payments were made through post offices and banks: in Egypt, cash transfer amounts to support workers from construction, ports, agriculture, fishing, plumbing and electricity sectors increased by 157%

Preparing workers for new jobs

But if markets were shutting down for many, new jobs were being created in sectors such as health and logistics. In order to prepare people for these jobs, Germany introduced new measures to reinforce vocational training for reskilling and upskilling. Employment incentives, matching and placement services, mobility schemes and direct job creation initiatives were also undertaken in many countries to help economies cope with the crisis. On the other hand, other countries were less successful at reimagining vocational training services due to a lack of digital skills among participants, a lack of infrastructure, bandwidth and equipment, as well as the low capacity of training providers to respond quickly.

Reinventing public services

It is often argued that the pandemic has made us all more digital, but many people still continue to prefer face-to-face contact. This was the case for many workers in need of information as regards the constantly changing rules, and how to continue working whilst complying with new health regulations.

Public employment services needed to adapt, and started exploring the use of new communication tools. Others, such as the Irish public employment service, set up a crisis management planning and labour market monitoring process to identify the new skills needed in the job market.

Looking at the future

The pandemic is not over, and its potential long-term impact reinforces the need for a clear vision. Protecting vulnerable job seekers will be of utmost importance, to prevent them from falling into long-term inactivity and social exclusion. And action needs to be taken now.

As a World Development Bank report flagged, changes in training take a generation to have an effect. So across the complexity of all labour market policies, there is surely one key action needed to avoid exacerbating inequalities: upskilling and reskilling. Eventually, delivering this action remotely, as in the inspirational case of Morocco and its mobile public services.

More on the ETF study "Mapping innovative practices in the field of labour market policies during the Covid-19 crisis": click here

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