Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Mauritius and Seychelles Accelerator Lab
The tourism sector has been on pause since March 2020 in Mauritius. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector had on average contributed about 7% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Mauritius over the past 10 years, and in 2019, accounted for 22% of employment. The impact of this sharp decline in tourism is being felt, first and foremost, at the level of people and households. While the Government Wage Assistance Scheme (GWAS) to ensure sustained livelihoods continues to be a warranted initiative, can it really withstand a protracted period of pandemic-induced uncertainty?
In the short-term, yes. The GWAS averted a potential downward spiral, and remains one of the main policy tools to contain both the employment and social fallout of the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic reshaped our current understanding of work, with teleworking becoming one of the most widespread trends. However, in Mauritius, even after the first lockdown was lifted in June 2020, about 1 in 3 households continued to endure an income deficit due to job losses and reduced working hours. While the “new normal” resumed in Mauritius for about 11 months, a second outbreak of local COVID-19 transmission in March 2021 put the country back into another lockdown, prompting the resurgence of fiscal policy measures into sectors beyond tourism.
Responding collectively to a shared global challenge
The UNDP estimates that on some aspects of human development, levels of deprivation have dropped to those last seen in the mid-1980s, but it also notes: “if we needed a proof of concept that humanity can respond collectively to a shared global challenge, we are now living through it.”
Part of this collective response can start with reimagining the working landscape. Reskilling might sound like a buzzword to many, but done correctly, that is looking at people as part of the solution rather than a problem to be solved, it can revolutionise industries. And, in these unprecedented times, it can also be an important livelihood continuity plan.
While it can be difficult to think about the future, the bigger picture and the generations to come amid a global pandemic, which means that reskilling the workforce might not be an immediate policy consideration, it should be.
Before COVID-19, accelerated technological changes and automation drove fears of permanent job displacement and job losses, which in turn encouraged initiatives such as the World Economic Forum’s Reskilling Revolution. There are continuing debates on whether COVID-19 will end or worsen automation concerns. Whichever the case, preparation will be key.
So, how might we think of reskilling (and upskilling) in the context of Mauritius?
In 2019, the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) of Mauritius, launched the National Skills Development Strategy 2020-2024, with an ambitious aim to “improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the skills development system”. This exercise is important as it established a policy framework and positions Mauritius to respond to the upcoming skills challenges. In November 2020, the HRDC also launched the National Training & Reskilling Scheme (NTRS), targeting some 9,000 unemployed persons and offering them an opportunity to re-train into emerging fields such as renewable energy, circular economy, old-age, disability and social care services amongst others.
A concerning trend, however, is the sharper rise in levels of inactivity vs unemployment. In May 2020, Mauritius in its Continuous Multi-Purpose Household Survey reported an inactive population of 336,900 persons out of which about 20% claimed to have worked before the lockdown and cited business closures for their inactivity, most notably in the services sector. Despite evident setbacks, the promise and potential to re-emerge as a thriving economy and society should not be underestimated.
For the tourism industry, a recovery to pre-Covid levels remains in question and will depend on a set of interconnected factors. To avoid further shocks to the Mauritian workforce, there is need to rethink how societies, economies and ecosystems interact. Today, economies, societies and ecosystems are faced with the imperative of digital transformation. Many of the jobs of tomorrow are linked to technologies such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things, which means there is potential of a skills gap. Despite the clear skills gap, without people these technologies will not be helpful. At the centre of the discourse lies one clear consideration: care and repair, for people and the planet.
Historically, crises have led to employment-intensive investment approaches (Public Work Programmes (PWP)) including infrastructure, construction and maintenance of natural resources (agriculture, water conservation), solid waste collection and management among others. Moreover, they help to integrate Micro, Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (MSMEs) and rely on locally available skills.
However, labour trends are changing drastically. Even if PWPs are deployed as a policy measure, implementation will need to adhere to guidelines related to health and safety in the current context, and may prompt digital public works. Once again, Mauritius will need to anticipate and prepare.
Embracing the Green Jobs of Tomorrow
Mauritius has committed to achieving a low-carbon economy as part of its Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement. UNDP’s Climate Promise Initiative has committed to providing technical assistance to 118 countries to review their commitments ahead of COP26. The country’s decarbonization plans have the potential to not only secure energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions but to create jobs in an emerging sector. However, as workers lose jobs, transition, reskill or upskill, they will need much more than wage subsidies and social assistance. This is especially so for those workers in the informal sector who do not have ready access to these facilities.
A nation-wide reskilling endeavour implies a significant financial investment, which can present a barrier given the current fiscal climate. However, innovative financial models exist. For example, in India, through the REVIVE Alliance blended finance leveraged public sector funding to mobilize private sector capital for scaled solutions to complex development challenges, such as unemployment and income gaps in the informal sector, the self-employed and at-risk micro-entrepreneurs.
Above all, a green labour economy is going to be an exercise in cooperation, collective intelligence and collaboration between stakeholders including private sector employers, funders, investors and policymakers to establish an enabling environment.
Now is an opportunity to address the near 336,000 persons falling outside the labour force, and thus economically inactive, by incentivising a national push towards embracing the jobs of tomorrow. However, the road to reskilling through the adoption of the green jobs of the future has to be equitable. That is, one the one hand, for people with a future in the digital economy and, on the other, for those toiling away in essential jobs often unprotected and underpaid, with little prospect of being part of a future digital economy. They are not going away.
The future of work has to be fulfilling for every citizen.
This blog is part of a series in which the Accelerator Lab (Mauritius and Seychelles) explores the opportunities for reskilling and upskilling for a post-Covid-19 future. Next in the series: Turning to our Oceans for Alternate Livelihoods.