April 29, 2020

What has the covid-19 pandemic unearthed about the labour market and the circular economy?

The fragility of our labour market has been exposed; now we need to invest in the future we want for people and planet
Esther Goodwin Brown
Esther Goodwin Brown
Circular Jobs Initiative Lead
Esther Goodwin Brown

By Esther Goodwin Brown, with additional reporting by Laxmi Haigh

This blog is part of a series of reflections on covid-19 and the circular economy. For previous blogs in the series, please see here.

In a matter of weeks, we’ve seen entire countries go into lockdown, resulting in border closures, medical equipment shortages and unprecedented rates of un- and underemployment forecast for people across the world. As the current pandemic is showing us, we need an economic system and a corresponding labour market that can withstand the shocks of crises, including the aftershocks of covid-19 that will be realised over the coming months and years. This blog, which features in a series of Circle Economy’s reflections on the current pandemic, will consider how a just transition for workers to the circular economy could be a component of post-covid recovery. Within this, two elements emerge as important: how circularity can both promote systems resilience and realise the inherent value of vital workers.

The covid-19 pandemic has upturned and continues to shake our daily lives. But it has also shown our incredible ability to adapt and come together to change our course when a crisis becomes no longer avoidable.

We’ve seen a wave of support coming from the ground-up. Communities coming together to support those most at-risk, companies large and small transforming their production lines to alleviate medical equipment shortages; and organisations distributing unwanted phones and laptops so that people can stay connected and children can learn from home.

In this unprecedented time, communities, businesses, and governments can no longer function as usual and are drastically changing the way they operate. We ask: how can we work together to harness this over the long-term to shape a labour market that is resilient and creates decent work for all within planetary boundaries?

What can the circular economy offer the labour market?

In moving away from raw material extraction and growth at any cost, the circular economy lightens the pressure on global supply chains and, ideally, builds the resilience and capacity of nations by anchoring more production processes in local markets. In transforming innovation and production processes, it calls for new skills and ways of working as well as placing value on the existing jobs that fuel the economy.

Circle Economy’s Circular Jobs Initiative encourages employers to rethink the way we work. This spans developing interventions to promote circular skills, to uncovering the quality of the jobs that the circular economy creates for workers in different sectors and geographies. When working with employers to do this, the challenge that often arises is that employers don’t feel that they have enough resources or capacity to make strategic changes to future proof their workforce. Understandably, employers are often more concerned about meeting the immediate needs of their current workers, than envisioning the future.

But the current pandemic is laying bare mistakes, misguided incentives and the fragilities that have been hardwired into the economy. It has become clear that going back to business as usual is not an option. The circular economy alone may not be able to prevent global pandemics, but it can ease the pressure that has been placed on ecosystems and reduce the risks associated with global supply chains. With this, it has the potential to create more resilient workforces and local economies, as well as a healthier planet.

Workers are being deployed as part of covid-19 responses while companies retool to provide essential materials such as face masks and other protective equipment. Image source: General Motors.

Making the role of circularity explicit in recovery plans

This crisis is a wake-up call to invest in the future we want for people and the planet by committing to sustainable development strategies, like the circular economy. Intuitively, the circular economy paves the way for more a resilient economic system and labour market. But we need to strengthen these assumptions and make the long-term opportunities the circular economy presents explicit. To do this, the Circular Jobs Initiative seeks to start by learning from the current situation and exploring in more depth, with its community and partners, two key elements that have been particularly exposed by the crisis.

1. Circularity and labour market resilience

A resilient system has the capacity to recover from shocks and decreases the vulnerability of that system to change. The current crisis has shown the brittleness and vulnerability of a labour market built on maximising efficiency and minimising financial cost. In creating a system that can withstand shocks and deliver a future proof labour market, the circular economy could play an important role.

One of the key skills that the circular economy calls for — from the individual to market-level — is the ability to adapt and learn as new processes, technologies and innovations come into the market. In promoting a culture of adaptive and lifelong learning, the circular economy promotes workforces with the skills that make them ready to implement change.

Adaptive workforces can better accommodate the reorientation of workers and sector transformations needed as innovations and more sustainable strategies arise. We already see workers being redeployed as part of covid responses. It will be important to see what we learn from these responses in terms of informing the large-scale reskilling and redeployment strategies required to transition to the circular economy. This transition will also require shifts in demand for labour across sectors that will be seen as a result of innovations and the movement away from raw materials.

As well as supporting an adaptive workforce, the circular economy will also be creating localised value chains to optimise the use of secondary resources and logistics. By embracing innovations like 3D printing and additive manufacturing, the circular economy breaks our dependencies on global supply chains that have been so vehemently exposed by covid-19. This emphasis on local value chains should, in turn, create more resilient local economies, more diverse pools of local talent and with it more diverse job opportunities for people with different skill sets.

2. Circularity and the value of key workers

The circular economy presents us with an opportunity to reimagine the way we use and value resources — including labour. In March, Italy inspired a wave of displays of gratitude for key health and care workers that can still be heard on evenings in cities and towns across the world. This crisis has also been a lesson in recognising the other key workers at the heart of the economy that also deserve greater value in society. From the workers that prop up our food to waste systems and that have continued to go to work in the midst of country lockdowns.

The crisis has also exposed the traps in our labour market, particularly for certain groups of workers. Vast numbers of informal waste pickers have lost their livelihoods with little hope of government support, while migrant workers working as fruit and vegetable pickers have been forced to choose between returning home during lockdown or staying at work and risking their health.

An economic system that does not place adequate value on natural and human resources has led to stigma and discourse that does not value the vital roles that keep our society running. In rebuilding a stronger, more circular economy we should explore how we can learn from these mistakes. We need to unpick the mindsets and business models that have led us here and ensure the vital and currently often overlooked roles that help to preserve the world’s resources are given greater value through fair pay, decent working conditions and legal support.

Applying these lessons to set us on course to a resilient and inclusive economy

The actions by governments and communities over the last weeks and months have shown that smart policies can make a difference. We can collectively adapt. The transformation of our economic system and labour market is within reach. The question now is how we can work together to ensure these actions are not short-lived and that, instead, we harness these lessons to set us on the path to an economy that is resilient to shocks, values all its key workers and promotes decent work and a healthy planet.

Read more about the aims and projects of the Circular Jobs Initiative here.

Together, we can navigate the transition to a safe and just post-pandemic world

As the situation continues to unfold, we call on our readers, partners, stakeholders and community to join us in an open dialogue. We will be using the hashtag #circularpostcovid to share our thoughts, questions and ideas around the subject and invite you to do the same.


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