Bula Vinaka from Fiji.
After another worse-than-anticipated quarter for the world economy, COVID-19 is clearly the job-killer of the century. If we stand any hope of stemming losses in employment at millions rather than billions, we must act fast to rally to the aid of those most vulnerable.
The challenges faced by Small Island Developing States, like Fiji, are all too often masked by the ILO’s broad regional groupings, like Africa, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific. In fact, Fijians generally share more careers in common with those in the island economies of the Pacific, Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, than with larger Pacific-Rim economies.
Across each of these regions, SIDS are shouldering this pandemic’s most severe economic fallout. It’s no big wonder why citizens in SIDS economies rely a great deal on the health of travel-related industries. The scale of our labour markets means global shocks hold far more destructive impact, and we don’t have the deep pockets of wealthier nations to bail out whole industries or pump stimulus-levels of liquidity into our markets.
Fiji is a COVID-Contained country, with no cases outside of our quarantine facilities in over 80 days. But even with our outbreak in Fiji ended and the global epicenter of the pandemic moving westward, the burden the Fijian people carry on their backs has not shifted an inch or lost a gram. The floors of many factories are still quiet. With borders are shut around the world, Fijian tourism has come to a halt. Many jobs have still not returned –– some may never.
In total, 115,000 Fijians –– one third of our workforce –– have had their jobs lost or hours cut. I’ve met many of those employees; I’ve listened to the stories behind that staggering statistic. You can’t suddenly work from home when you earn your paycheck as a scuba instructor, or in a garment factory dependent on regional supply chains, or as a handicraft maker who usually sells to tourists. And many young people never imagined starting their careers in the midst of a pandemic. Now, many of their employable talents sit idle.
These are the faces behind the dismal figures for employment; the high human costs of this pandemic which mount by the day.
In many ways, COVID-19 is deepening the very same inequalities exposed by climate change –– a painful parallel that is accelerating catastrophe across SIDS economies.
Neither climate change nor COVID-19 can be treated with over-the-counter cure-alls. Both require prescriptive solutions –– including urgent actions to adapt societies, along with larger, longer-term shifts in the world economy. When it comes to livelihoods, we must protect those facing the greatest risks, and position our economies towards a “new normal” –– a better normal for the world of work that is bluer, greener, more co-operative, and more resilient –– both to climate change and to COVID-19.
And as with our commitment to climate action, Fiji is committed to leading by doing. After decisively containing the virus, we launched a “COVID-Safe Economic Recovery”, re-opening much of our domestic economy. Our workplaces are operating in line with tailor-made, COVID-safe operation plans and we’ve launched a mobile application dubbed “careFIJI” that speeds up contact tracing efforts, if ever necessary.
We’re opening “blue lanes” to allow private marine vessels to safely enter Fijian waters, a “Bula Bubble” to re-open travel with Australia and New Zealand and “Pacific Pathways” to reconnect with our smaller Pacific Island neighbours. We’re funding Fijians with valuable skill-sets to switch from job-taking to job-making; providing concessional micro-enterprise loans to someone who, for example, formerly made their living in a hotel bakery to set-up a pastry shop of their own.
And Government has created a new category of unemployment benefits to aid employees whose incomes have evaporated or hours have been slashed due to the pandemic.
But Fiji –– and other small island economies –– can’t weather this storm alone. When it comes to growing our economy, protecting livelihoods and reducing poverty –– along with our urgent priorities of climate adaptation and oceans preservation –– we’ve long struggled to reconcile our realities with the ILO’s broadly-focused frameworks. When it comes to COVID, SIDS need resources, not regulations better suited to larger labour markets.
Let’s find opportunity in this crisis by recognising how the ILO can better support employers and employees who rely on the stalwarts of small island economies –– like tourism –– and target support accordingly.
Let’s get people back to work and let’s also look out for the planet, by using our COVID-comeback to spur just transitions towards sustainable pathways to prosperity.
And let’s help employers and employees take these challenges on together. We haven’t seen the end of the extraordinary sacrifices exacted to endure this crisis. Until these headwinds abate, governments, employers and employees, take sober stock of reality, and put everyone’s well-being at the heart of a compassionate response and –– ultimately –– an inclusive recovery.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.