Sharp growth in Asia’s labour force poses economic, environmental challenges – UN

13 August 2007

Asia’s vast labour force, already estimated at some 1.8 billion workers, is expected to grow by more than 200 million by the year 2015, posing a series of environmental, economic and social challenges to the region’s rapidly growing economies, according to a new report by the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO).

Asia’s vast labour force, already estimated at some 1.8 billion workers, is expected to grow by more than 200 million by the year 2015, posing a series of environmental, economic and social challenges to the region’s rapidly growing economies, according to a new report by the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO).

“One thing is clear: doing business as usual is not sustainable over the long term,” ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said of the report, “Visions for Asia’s Decent Work Decade: Sustainable Growth and Jobs to 2015,” which is being discussed at the three-day ILO Asian Employment Forum opening in Beijing today.

“Asia is experiencing unprecedented growth and development. At the same time, vulnerabilities arising from environmental pressures, economic insecurity, shortcomings in governance and unequal income distribution pose a threat to the region’s future development.”

The report notes that expanding output would not be enough to create the jobs needed to reduce poverty and the massive informal economy, and that there remained “a great deal of serious work to be done” to improve the quality of the jobs that are created and to ensure that the benefits of Asia’s future economic growth are more equitably distributed.

The Forum is the first major gathering of senior government, labour and employer representatives from some 20 countries in Asia and the Pacific since the launch of the Decent Work Decade at the ILO’s Asian regional meeting a year ago.

The service sector will be the main source of job creation and by 2015 will become the largest sector, representing about 40.7 per cent of the region’s total employment, the report says. The share of industrial employment is expected to increase from 23.1 per cent in 2006 to 29.4 per cent in 2015, while the share of agricultural employment is projected to decline from 42.6 per cent to 29.4 per cent between 2006 and 2015.

But the report also identifies major challenges requiring significant attention to ensure social and environmental sustainability. Despite a decline in the number of working poor living on less than $2 per person per day since 1996 by some 123 million, over 1 billion, or 61.9 percent of the region’s workforce, still work in the informal economy with little or no social protection and often in low-productivity jobs.

While this share has dropped from 67.2 per cent a decade earlier, it is not likely that there will be a major reduction in the relative size of the informal economy by 2015.

The report calls for an effective balance between flexibility, stability and security through improved labour market governance, including the adoption and adherence to international labour standards, improving accountability and transparency, and building the capacity of employers and workers to engage more effectively in serious dialogue.

It also warns that growth and sustainable development could be seriously undermined by environmental degradation, depletion of natural resources and climate change, and stresses the need for governments, employers and workers to develop policy tools aimed at achieving environmentally sustainable development and job creation.

Other challenges include an ageing labour force that is expected to see between 1 in 10, and in some cases 1 in 4 people in some countries, over 65 years of age by 2015; the need to improve job quality and ensure equal opportunities between young women and men; increasing migration that will see millions of workers leaving each year to work abroad; and accelerating rural-urban migration that will see the urban population grow by 350 million by 2015 while the rural population will increase by only 15 million.

The inability of wage growth to keep pace with labour productivity growth in some countries, rising income inequalities between extreme poor and other workers, and between rural and urban workers, and long working hours becoming the norm in many parts of Asia, are also factors that have to be taken into account.

“Meeting the challenges facing the region will require far-sighted thinking and careful planning,” Mr. Somavia said. “We all need to work together to make globalization and economic growth more inclusive.”

 

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