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International Labour Day

On 1 May, people in over 90 countries commemorate International Labour Day to celebrate the efforts and contributions of workers across all industries and sectors. In the last few years, multiple crises, including the pandemic, cost-of-living challenges and energy shortages, coupled with the consequences of the war in Ukraine, have had a profound impact on employees worldwide. We take a look at the origins of International Labour Day, whilst reflecting on the many challenges faced by workers today.


International Labour Day is a globally celebrated holiday, the origins of which can be traced back to the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886 when striking union workers clashed with police whilst advocating for an eight-hour workday. The first International Socialist Congress in Paris officially recognized International Workers’ Day in 1889. Since then, this day has become a rallying point for the labour movement, a symbol of solidarity among workers worldwide, and a reminder of the power of collective action in securing workers’ rights and freedoms. 

Low-income workers and the cost-of-living crisis

As the world continued to grapple with the challenges posed by the pandemic last year, rising inflation rates created new challenges. According to the ILO (World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2023), average real wages fell significantly in 2022 and this drop reduced the purchasing power of the middle- and low-income groups, whilst hitting low-income ones particularly hard.  

The decline in real wages in 2022 was most severe in advanced economies, at 2.2%. In contrast, emerging economies experienced a reduced but positive wage growth of 0.8%. Falling real incomes are particularly devastating for poorer households, which risk slipping into poverty and food insecurity. Poorer households tend to allocate a higher share of their budgets to food and transportation, which means that the cost-of-living increase for low-income households can be between 1 and 4% higher than for high-income households.  

In 2022, an estimated 214 million workers worldwide were living in extreme poverty, equivalent to around 6.4% of the world’s employed. Low-income countries are estimated to have had the same rate of extreme working poverty as in 2019, which does not bode well for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1: the eradication of poverty in all its forms.

Groups particularly impacted

Below, we take a look at two particular groups that have particularly suffered during and since the pandemic.  

a) Frontline health and care workers

It’s always worth remembering that during the COVID-19 pandemic, health and care workers played a vital role in the global response to the pandemic, serving as the foundation of health systems and the driving force behind efforts to achieve health security. The commitment and professionalism of health and care workers have been evident to all. Yet, at the same time, frontline healthcare workers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, facing immense pressure and stress. Many healthcare workers put their own health and safety on the line to provide critical care and support to those in need. Tragically, the World Health Organization estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021.  

b) Young people in employment 

 The pandemic has disrupted economies, communities and individual lives in countless ways, but one group that was hit particularly hard during the crisis was young people. The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that young people in the workforce are, on average, three times more likely than adults to be unemployed. Moreover, young workers tend to have different job types than their older counterparts, with a higher prevalence of temporary contracts, sometimes leaving them with less job security and fewer protections.  

In 2020, the global youth unemployment rate reached approximately 18%, compared to around 15% in the previous year, according to the ILO (World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2023). While the rate declined to 14% in 2022, indicating progress, it is still alarming that last year, 69 million young people were actively seeking work but unable to secure a job. The upper-middle-income countries (excluding China) experienced the highest youth unemployment rates, at 17% last year. Data from 2022 indicates that the global employment-to-population ratio for young people aged 15 to 24 was 34.5 percent, which is 0.7 percentage points lower than the 2019 level. This relative shortfall is more significant than for adults, whose gap was only 0.5%.