Jobs in Asia and Pacific record modest recovery while future growth prospects remain challenging

Asia-Pacific labour markets have recorded a partial rebound from the impact of COVID-19 yet full recovery in the region remains elusive with conditions expected to remain difficult into 2023.

According to the Asia–Pacific Employment and Social Outlook 2022: Rethinking sectoral strategies for a human-centred future of work, employment numbers in the Asia-Pacific region in 2022 were 2.0 per cent above the pre-crisis level of 2019, recovering from the loss of over 57 million jobs in 2020.

Still, the recovery is not complete. The region still lacks 22 million jobs in 2022, a jobs gap of 1.1 per cent compared to if the pandemic had not occurred. This number is projected to increase to 26 million (1.4 per cent) in 2023 given the headwinds to growth in the current geopolitical global and regional context.

At the same time, total working hours in the region remained below those of 2019 while the regional unemployment rate in 2022 was 5.2 per cent, an increase of 0.5 percentage points from 2019.

By 2022, all subregions had regained the employment losses of 2020 and were showing positive employment growth over 2019. However, employment growth did not keep pace with population growth. Only in the Pacific was the employment-to-population ratio in 2022 above that of 2019.

“Although Asia-Pacific employment trends look positive, the region’s labour market is not yet back on its pre-crisis track with numerous additional challenges casting shadows on future growth prospects. It is vital that we bring inclusive and human-centred growth back to the region and not settle for a ‘quasi’ recovery based on informal and poor-quality jobs,” said Ms Chihoko Asada Miyakawa, ILO Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

The report makes a first-time assessment of regional sectoral estimates over a three-decade period from 1991-2021 to highlight which sectors are growing as sources of jobs, which are shrinking and which harbour opportunities for “decent work”.

It reveals that while IT and information services is the region’s fastest growing sector in terms of employment growth, only 9.4 million persons worked in the sector in 2021, corresponding to just 0.5 per cent of total employment.

By contrast, the three largest sectors in terms of employment in the Asia-Pacific region: agriculture, forestry and fishing; manufacturing; and wholesale and retail trade together accounted for 1.1 billion workers in 2021, or 60 per cent of the region’s 1.9 billion workforce.

The sectors where workers are concentrated are typically characterized by limited labour productivity, low wages, poor working conditions and low job and income security. Most workers in these sectors lack social protection while a high degree of informality also exists, with any gains made in recent decades largely wiped out by the pandemic.

Gender inequality remains rife with all but one of the top ten high employment growth sectors benefitting men workers over women workers. Only accommodation and food service activities bucked this trend with 55 per cent of added jobs between 1991 and 2021 going to women.

“Despite half a century of economic growth the fact remains that most workers in Asia and the Pacific are employed in sectors that the ‘Asian miracle’ has passed by. While IT and modern sectors may receive the lion’s share of attention, the greatest potential to drive growth and decent work in the region lies in far less glamorous areas. The challenge moving forward is to increase and sustain policy attention and public investment to achieve decent work and inclusion in all sectors, especially those where the majority of people work,” said Sara Elder, ILO Senior Economist and lead author of the report.

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