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World View : A Revolution at Work : Nearly one-third of the world's labor force is jobless or underemployed. But technology promises change.


WASHINGTON — Workers of the world, beware.

With the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression at hand, almost one in every three workers--or 820 million out of 2.8 billion--is either without a job or underemployed, according to the International Labor Organization.

That chilling statistic underscores how, of all the world's changes at the end of the millennium, the upheaval in jobs may have the deepest impact on the average person.

"The world's job market is undergoing an historic transformation at an unprecedented pace. And it's not over,' said Peter Peek, a Geneva-based economist for the U.N. labor organization and co-author of the ILO study "World Employment 1995."

"We're only somewhere in the middle of the process," he said.

Ironically, despite the high number of jobless, many changes in employment patterns are positive, creating conditions for broader employment in the future. Technology is transforming the types of jobs available. Globalization is diversifying their location. Women's liberation is revising who does what. And empowerment of the poor and minorities is opening up opportunities once limited to privileged classes.

The technology of faxes and jumbo jets has created jobs in Switzerland for Africans. And vice versa. Geneva supermarkets that once stocked small and pricey winter vegetables artificially cultivated in local greenhouses now fly in fresh produce grown naturally in the African sun--and sell it for the same price or less.

The breakdown of global trade barriers allows the trendy Italian clothing manufacturerBenetton, doing its planning and marketing from its Venice headquarters, to produce its products with weavers and sewers in places from Poland to the Persian Gulf.

The trouble--and the discrepancy in prospects--lie in the transition period.

"The pace of change is overwhelming whole sectors of economic activity. Those displaced from their jobs are often not equipped to work in the new activities that emerge. When new jobs are created, they are often less well-paid, less secure and of lower quality than those that disappear," according to a report of the U.N. Development Program.

The crisis has reached such alarming proportions that this week the United Nations is holding a World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen on unemployment and the related issues of poverty and social disintegration.

In the short term, many authorities claim, there's not much relief in sight on jobs.

"Prospects for job growth remain, with few exceptions, gloomy throughout the world," according to the ILO world employment study, which was issued this month.

"Under current scenarios, growth will not be sufficient to cure Europe's endemic employment ills, reverse the decline in real U.S. incomes, halt the spread of poverty and underemployment in developing countries or prevent the marginalization of an entire continent--Africa," the study asserts.

Unemployment in Africa now officially ranges from 15% to 20%, with underemployment usually cited at well over half the labor force. And despite resumed growth in their economies, wealthy industrialized nations have seen their unemployment rates triple from about 3% in the 1970s to as much as 10% in the early 1990s, the U.N. Development Program reports.

"Entire generations are growing up who believe that it is unrealistic to hope for productive, remunerative and reasonably secure jobs," it warns. And the dangers may spill over, the ILO adds: "Societies that fail to offer that prospect are bound to be socially unstable and economically insecure."

In 1993, Russia's minimum wage plummeted to a quarter of the level required for basic subsistence. By 1994, Russian unemployment was estimated to be at least five times higher than the official rate. Both are key factors in widespread and growing public discontent.

North vs. South

Between wealthy countries of the Northern Hemisphere and developing nations of the south, labor trends differ, the ILO study points out. In the north, jobs are disappearing in the fields of electronics, textiles, leather processing and others where labor costs are a significant part of the total. Labor-intensive production is no longer profitable in these areas.

Over the past 30 years, manufacturing jobs have declined from 37% to 24% of the northern job pool, according to the ILO study.

"The current process of de-industrialization is far more rapid than the pace of de-agriculturization in the late 1800s and early 1900s," ILO analyst Peek said.

At the same time, however, service sector jobs, from hamburger flippers to computer analysts, have soared from 41% to 68% of the labor force.

Among the areas of greatest growth through the year 2005 will be service jobs in child care, travel, teaching, gardening and the law, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. The biggest advance will be in home-health jobs, whose number may double.

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