ESSENTIAL workers who kept families, societies and economies going while the world was under lockdown must have better pay and conditions now if countries are to future-proof themselves from the next global crisis, United Nations labor experts said on Wednesday.

"In a number of countries, key sectors are facing labor shortages, because people are increasingly reluctant to engage in work which is not properly, adequately, fairly valued by society and rewarded in terms of better pay and improved working conditions," said Manuela Tomei, assistant director-general for governance, rights and dialogue at the International Labor Organization (ILO).

According to a new ILO report that gathered data from 90 countries, key workers remain severely "undervalued" and their contributions insufficiently recognized.

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The report focuses on essential workers in sectors such as health, retail, food systems, security, sanitation and transport. The ILO's findings show that during the coronavirus crisis' peak, these key workers suffered higher mortality rates than nonkey ones, because of greater exposure to Covid-19.

They also continue to be overrepresented among low-pay workers, defined as those who earn less than two-thirds of the median wage.

Speaking in the western Swiss city of Geneva on Wednesday, Richard Samans, director of the ILO's research department, said investing in better pay and working conditions for key workers was a matter of fairness and future-proofing in the event of another global emergency.

"This is an opportunity for obtaining a two-for-one payoff: both improving the working conditions, reducing the social justice deficits faced by many of these categories of workers, but also for strengthening the resilience of economies, their ability to withstand shocks of whatever nature, whether it be a future pandemic, a natural disaster or other," Samans said.

Key recommendations in the report include strengthening regulation in essential areas like wages and workplace safety, as well as targeting investments in the health and food sectors and in support of small businesses.

The report also shows a 26-percent-on-average gap in earnings between key and nonkey workers. Working conditions in essential jobs are also marked by long and unpredictable hours, limited training opportunities and poor social protection coverage, including lesser access to paid sick leave.

Nearly one in three key workers worldwide is on a short-term contract, with a negative impact on job security and entitlements.

The ILO underscores that when poor working conditions of key workers exacerbate employee turnover and labor shortages, the provision of basic services is in jeopardy. This is true both in higher and lower-income countries.

Faced with the need to boost investment in order to guarantee decent work and strengthen business continuity "in good times or bad," the UN labor agency urged governments, employers and workers' organizations to work together to ensure the delivery of key goods and services.

"Like an insurance policy, such a strategy would more than pay for itself when the next crisis hits," the ILO said.