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Economy-wide shift to telework post-COVID? Not quite.

THE COVID-19 pandemic has sent shockwaves across the globe, and workplaces are among the most severely affected by the crisis. Reports* from the National Task Force against COVID-19 and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) have identified workplaces as one of the primary sources of the surge in infections. In mid-March 2020, most businesses were ordered to close their physical workplaces as part of the measures to curb the spread of the virus. Some firms were able to adopt work-from-home schemes successfully, but many jobs could not be performed from home. On what scale can telework be adopted in the Philippines, who are likely to work in “teleworkable” jobs, and what are the prerequisites for a more permanent shift to work-from-home arrangements?

Teleworkability is defined as the ability to perform work tasks from home, making use of the internet, e-mail and phone**. It assumes that the necessary information and telecommunications technology infrastructure is accessible to workers. In contrast, those occupations that need to be done outside the home every day or require the operation of equipment are considered non-teleworkable.

The Asian Institute of Management Rizalino S. Navarro Policy Center for Competitiveness (AIM RSN PCC) estimated that only 25.7% of Philippine occupations can be classified as “can be worked from home.” Moreover, only an estimated 12% of the labor force is engaged in teleworkable occupations, mostly in the services sector. The agriculture sector has very few employees in jobs that can be worked from home, accounting for less than half a percent of all teleworkable employment.

The education sector has the largest share of teleworkable jobs at 81%, followed by the real estate, and the professional, scientific, and technical services sectors at around 67% each. The financial and information and communication sectors also have a large share of teleworkable jobs, accounting for 56% and 47% of all employment in these sectors, respectively.

On the other hand, the sectors with the smallest share of teleworkable jobs are in agriculture, forestry and fishing (0.2%), construction (1.6%), transportation and storage (1.8%), and in the wholesale and retail sector (6.2%). The least teleworkable sectors together employ nearly 61% of the entire workforce, with mostly low-wage, unskilled workers.

Professionals account for the largest share of teleworkable jobs (69%) but account for less than 5% of total employment. Likewise, 46% of clerical support workers and 30% of technicians and associated professionals are in jobs that can be worked from home. However, these occupational groups account for less than 16% of total employment.

While elementary occupations and skilled agricultural workers account for nearly 40% of total employment in the economy respectively, practically all these occupations are non-teleworkable. The pandemic has highlighted further the inflexible work arrangements that characterize the employment of a large portion of Filipino workers, which has become a major threat to their economic survival under the current lockdown.

Workers who can work from home are often well-educated while workers who cannot work from home are characterized by low levels of education. This is a feature of inequality that the pandemic has highlighted. Having higher educational attainment opens people to more jobs that not only pay well but also can provide greater flexibility in work arrangements. These employees can cope better during pandemics or other crises that require employees to work from home.

The results of the AIM RSN PCC study further show that those belonging to lower per capita income deciles, who are male, who have lower levels of education, and who are working in sectors such as agriculture and retail are disadvantaged in terms of the ability to work from home.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of workers in non-teleworkable sectors and occupations. Not only are they at greater risk of losing their jobs as the quarantine period further extends, but they are also exposed to health risks due to the lack of safe means to get to work. They also may not have enough income to buy health insurance and avail of health services should they get sick.

Quality education equips an individual with the skills to be employed in jobs that can be performed remotely. Aside from the ability to operate a computer and access related technologies such as the internet, competencies such as critical thinking, service orientation, complex problem solving, and cognitive flexibility should be taught as part of basic education. Developing these skills early on will not only ensure that the future workforce will have access to more jobs that can be performed remotely but, more importantly, will also future-proof the workforce amidst the ever-evolving labor market.

There is also a need to ensure that those who are in teleworkable jobs can telework. There is room for government and the private sector collaboration in the upskilling of workers with ICT knowledge and other skills needed for telework. Moreover, the government needs to strengthen the build-up of ICT infrastructure by reducing the number of permits required and the accompanying red tape for telecommunication companies to lay out their network and admitting more players in the market.

COVID-19 has also exposed weaknesses in the Philippines’ social protection system. The country’s social protection programs need to be strengthened and adequately funded, like having a professionally managed public health and insurance system and introducing unemployment support programs. A redesign of the social protection system for the Philippines must be pursued, not only in response to the pandemic, but also as part of a broader conversation on the fourth industrial revolution. Jobs will be more uncertain and fast-changing because of technology, and a robust social insurance system should be able to cushion the transitory adverse effects that will arise.

Although only 12% of the labor force are currently in teleworkable jobs, and only about 26% of jobs are teleworkable, these numbers do constitute a significant share. Making more workers telework-ready can help address some of the labor market inequalities mentioned above. While millions of workers are currently able to telework, now is as good a time as any for the private sector and the government to work together to make this a viable, long-term work option to a larger share of the workforce. n

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The views expressed in the article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Asian Institute of Management.


Ammielou Gaduena is an economist at the Asian Institute of Management – Rizalino S. Navarro Policy Center for Competitiveness.

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