Straight to content

ILO-backed initiative calls for greater focus on job quality in developing world’s circular economy 

Written by:
Published: 11 May 2023

A lack of data means policymakers are “flying blind”, as they seek to pave the way for better jobs in the circular economy of low-income countries, researchers say. 

Most of the 7 to 8 to million new jobs the report estimates could be created as part of efforts to recycle waste such as clothes, scrap metal and electronics are likely to be in developing countries | Makenoodle on iStock.

A greater focus on how the circular economy should develop in low-income countries at a critical stage in the sector’s evolution could create millions of jobs and improve working conditions, according to a new report. 

Decent Work in the Circular Economy” is the first report from theJobs in the Circular Economy initiative, created by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Bank’s Solutions for Youth Employment (S4YE) programme and Circle Economy, an NGO promoting sustainable development and the circular economy.  

Currently, attention is skewed heavily towards implementing the circular economy in developed rather than developing countries, and with a focus on environmental benefits rather than job creation, job quality and other social impacts, the authors say.

This disparity is underlined by a trawl of research into the theme: fewer than 2% of research papers written on the circular economy between 1995 and 2022 addressed the topic of decent work, while more than 80% of that research on decent work and the circular economy had a focus on countries in the Global North, the report says. 

Most of the seven to eight million new jobs the report estimates could be created as part of efforts to reuse, recycle and refurbish waste such as clothes, scrap metal and obsolete electronics are likely to be in developing countries. But most of those workers are currently likely to be employed in the informal economy with poor pay and working conditions. 

The authors argue that the expansion of the circular economy offers an opportunity not only for job creation but also for improving the quality and pay of those jobs. However, without more research and data on which to base decision making, efforts to do so are likely to fall short.  

Current research on jobs fails to fully address the impact circular economy interventions have in developing countries, where workers are often women, migrants, youth and vulnerable populations. The report says that, while 73 per cent of workers in low-income countries are employed in the informal economy, most research deals with formal, regulated work. 

Casper Edmonds, head of unit for extractives, energy and manufacturing in the ILO’s sectoral policies department, said a clearer idea of the working conditions faced every day by millions of circular economy workers was urgently needed. 

“We are flying blind, and if we are flying blind, how can we hope to design relevant policies and ensure that the transition to the circular economy becomes a fair and just transition that will deliver on the promise of job creation and decent work?” he said in a webinar to launch the report. 

The initiative aims to tackle the problem by providing tools and support to improve data collection and analysis on circular economy jobs, through international collaboration with research institutions, industry representatives, social partners, governments and public agencies. 

Namita Datta, programme manager for S4YE, said the concept of circularity needed no introduction for countries of the Global South.  

“Instead, the focus should be on addressing the low quality, low paying jobs in the informal sector with hazardous working conditions and exposure to toxic materials that are associated with circular activities like waste management, recycling, repair and reuse,” she said. 

Calls for action 

Esther Goodwin-Brown, circular jobs initiative lead at Circle Economy and one of the report’s authors, outlined the report’s three calls for action.  

“Firstly, we need a much more granular picture of what the circular economy means in reality across countries, regions, for marginalised groups, and on the local level, supported by globally relevant indicators,” she told the webinar.   

Secondly, a more global and socially justice-led vision for the circular economy supported by research and targeted policy was needed, she said. This meant sharing best practices from where the circular economy was already active, understanding what it meant for different countries and value chains, and examining policies and measures that support progress. 

“And lastly, we invite you all to jointly advocate for a more inclusive circular economy by creating data partnerships, by sharing knowledge and learning to make people already at the heart of the circular economy visible, and to maximise the potential for the circular economy to bring benefits for people around the world,” she told webinar participants.

Share on social media

Latest articles