COVID-19 pandemic

Vulnerable workers hardest hit by COVID-19 fallout in fragile Arab states

Assessments show spike in job and income losses and limited financial capacities to deal with the crisis, making it even harder for vulnerable workers to earn a living.

Press release | 13 October 2020
© ILO Jordan
BEIRUT (ILO News) – Rapid assessments examining the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on vulnerable workers and enterprises in fragile Arab states, show a significant reduction in jobs and incomes for both Syrian refugees and host communities. Limited financial capacities to cope with the crisis have led to a deterioration in living and working conditions of all workers, the assessments found.

The studies, conducted by the ILO in collaboration with a range of development and humanitarian partners, show that Syrian refugees, informally employed workers, women and younger workers have been disproportionately affected by the crisis in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Much of the Arab World already had to contend with pre-existing labour market challenges prior to the pandemic, whether in relation to the influx of refugees into neighbouring countries, high youth unemployment, low female participation rates, poverty or high informality.

The assessments surveyed samples of workers and enterprises that have participated in programmes implemented by the organizations involved in the reports.  Therefore, while not nationally representative, the reports show how the pandemic has compounded these underlying challenges and made it even harder for vulnerable people to earn livelihoods and access sources of income.

“As is the case in other regions, the COVID-19 pandemic has created additional economic challenges in the Arab States, and key job-rich sectors have been severely hit,” said Frank Hagemann, ILO Acting Regional Director for Arab States.

“Conflict-affected countries are witnessing even deeper consequences, given the strained government structures, crippled economies and labour markets, and lack of basic infrastructures needed to address this crisis.”

“Heightened risks also face other countries where large numbers of refugees reside. This group and vulnerable segments of the local population need increased support, even as government resources continue to decrease,” Hagemann explained.

In Jordan, findings show that almost half of the workers who were in employment before the COVID-19 outbreak were out of work during the early weeks of the crisis. The majority said they did not have any forms of savings to tap into, and that the level of cash and in-kind assistance they received was limited.

In Lebanon, the pandemic emerged at a time when the country was grappling with its worst economic and financial crisis in decades, in addition to political instability and a protracted refugee crisis. Results show deterioration in the living and working conditions of both Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees as a result of the pandemic. Syrian refugees, who tend to accept lower wages and tougher working conditions, are among the hardest it.

In Iraq, a country which has approximately 1.4 million internally displaced persons, the pandemic has had a profound impact on younger workers and women, many of whom were already unemployed before the crisis. With more than one-third of the respondents who are the main providers for their households being permanently laid-off, the effect of the pandemic is expected to be substantial, not only for those individuals but also for those who are economically dependent on them, the assessment found.

The assessments provide recommendations for immediate action and longer-term policy measures, including measures to address pre-existing labour market challenges:
  • Supporting vulnerable workers and struggling businesses through direct cash assistance.
  • Re-adapting programmes to the new and urgent needs of workers by focusing on building community and public assets during and in the aftermath of COVID-19, and increasing protective measures.
  • Reducing the risk of formal entities becoming informal, through government-backed loan guarantee schemes, transition to digital wage payments and tax exemptions.
  • Simplifying administrative processes so that those in need can better access available services and funds.
The assessments were developed by the ILO Regional Office for Arab States, in collaboration with the Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research (Fafo) and development and humanitarian partners, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Cash Consortium for Iraq (CCI,) and Lebanon’s Livelihoods Sector Core Group.