World Day of Social Justice: Libraries for decent work and opportunities for all

The pandemic has had a profound impact on work and employment worldwide. A 2021 Call to Action by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) outlines the vast scope of these impacts:

“… increased unemployment, underemployment and inactivity; losses in labour and business income, especially in the most impacted sectors; enterprise closures and bankruptcies, particularly for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises; supply chain disruptions; informality and insecurity of work and income; new challenges to health, safety and rights at work; and exacerbated poverty and economic and social inequality.”

The 2022 World Day of Social Justice sees a strong call for continued efforts to address these challenges – focusing on the overarching theme “Achieving Social Justice through Formal Employment”.

Why this theme?

As an introduction to the 2022 Social Justice Day by the United Nations highlights, more than 60% of people employed around the world operate in the informal economy. Their position is often that of significantly more vulnerability, with workers likely to earn less and have less access to employment benefits or social protection.

The ILO Director-General’s message points to the ‘great divergence’ and exacerbated socioeconomic inequalities, with those who were already more vulnerable before the pandemic experiencing the strongest adverse impacts – including women, young people, migrant workers, those in the informal sector, and small enterprises.

This, of course, directly shapes and impacts the needs of the communities which libraries serve. Employment support is a task libraries have taken on in different ways over the years – by providing access to information, training and connectivity, support for entrepreneurs and job-seekers, networking opportunities, and more. So how are users’ employment needs and situations – and library responses – evolving today?

Evolving trends and challenges

The 2022 World Employment and Social Outlook ILO flagship report summarises some of the key recent trends in the global labour market, including:

  • During the pandemic, declines in employment and working hours have led to losses in income. As countries resume economic activities, the global labour market’s progress towards recovery has been asymmetric, taking place significantly faster in higher-income countries.
  • Inequalities within countries persist as well, with particularly pronounced adverse impacts on women’s and young people’s employment rates. To date, formal wage workers appear to have returned to employment at a higher rate than informal wage workers – and some evidence suggests that more people have moved towards informal self-employment or family-owned activities.
  • There is an expansion of gig-based employment. In some sectors, the share of temporary work within total employment has risen as well (while the overall incidence of temporary jobs has remained fairly stable, it’s also worth noting that a sizeable share of temporary workers in 2021 had previously held non-temporary jobs).

It goes without saying, however, that these broad macro-level trends also vary greatly within and across regions. Overall, ILO projections suggest that, in 2022, the working-hour deficit caused by the pandemic will be substantially smaller than in 2021, but still significant. In light of these developments, it is therefore important to consider both the quantitative rates of working hours and employment – and the quality of work and working conditions.

Libraries for decent work and employment

In their day-to-day work, libraries of course also see the way different employment situations and possible vulnerabilities shape user needs. A 2020 patron survey in three Resource Centers in public libraries in Namibia, for example, helped estimate how many of their users had access to a computer or a fixed internet connection at home – and showed significant differences between user groups with different employment situations (employed, self-employed, job seeker).

At the same time, when it comes to developing specialised offers, the diversity of library approaches to employment support throughout the pandemic shows how these services can be leveraged and adapted to specific user needs or local circumstances:

The US, for instance, has seen new examples of library employment support offers tailored to specific community groups (e.g. local Black and Latinx entrepreneurs, and users from lower-income backgrounds) – and to particular in-demand jobs and fields.

Such considerations are echoed, for example, in the collaboration between the National Library of Sri Lanka and Commonwealth of Learning (COL) – Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative. ‘Skills Online Sri Lanka – Employed for the Unemployed’ brought together different stakeholders to enable job-seekers to follow online upskilling and re-skilling courses through the COL platform. The initiative emphasised skills-building for in-demand jobs which help meet current industry needs, as well as an outreach drive to involve more women, young participants and differently-abled people. In South Africa, the City of Johannesburg Library and Information Services has recently re-launched an e-learning online platform which features, inter alia, links to online digitla skills courses offered by several tech companies – including certification possibilities and links to job opportunities.

In Zimbabwe, Community Study Circles in Edward Ndlovu Community Libraries focus on helping rural residents start and build up commercial income-generating projects. The Circles have worked to help maintain these initiatives throughout the pandemic (including, for example, meetings to discuss how to tackle the challenges COVID-19 has caused to the projects).

In Nepal, the READ Centers were able to offer no-interest microloans to families who had lost their main sources of income during lockdowns. This offer included not only seed money, but also guidance and support on how to use these resources to develop a reliable new source of income (e.g. by assisting grant recipients with business plans and network connections).

Part of a bigger puzzle

Clearly, meeting the employment needs of communities and addressing the inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic requires sustained and multidimensional efforts – and we are also seeing new and evolving partnerships between libraries and various other stakeholders to help achieve this. In fact, some of the examples above were realised through such collaborations!

There are different valuable contributions that libraries and information professionals can bring to the table in such partnerships. One is access to information and content – for example, in their collaboration with vocational training centers, Libraries Without Borders provided Ideas Cube kits with additional teaching and learning digital resources tailored to the local context of each center.

Other invaluable resources include a library’s network, infrastructure, and position at the heart of its community. These can help power outreach and make sure that more people can benefit from existing employment support offers. An example here would be, of course, collaborations between libraries and employment agencies.

Finally, it is also worth noting how broader public policy efforts seek to engage libraries in the push for employment support during the pandemic and eventual recovery. One example comes from New Zealand, where one of the key goals of a 4-year funding package for libraries is to enable them to “provide extra assistance to jobseekers and to people wanting to improve their reading and digital literacy skills”. Another example comes from the US, where the American Rescue Plan Act has made it possible to fund more library-based job training, employment and professional development offers – for example, by the California State Library.

All in all, a transition towards employment formalisation and, more broadly, towards decent employment for all is an urgent policy priority which requires integrated solutions – ones which are suitable for local circumstances. Libraries can offer valuable tools and support – through standalone initiatives, partnerships, and as part of comprehensive policy approaches to job market support. We look forward to seeing more fruitful and innovative interventions that can help shape a more just and equitable recovery!

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