Living and Working in Corona Times: Interview with Director Paulien Osse of the WageIndicator Foundation

Recently, the WageIndicator Foundation had announced the Continuous Global Online Survey ‘Living and Working in Corona Times’. (See also the report in the GLO NEWS on March 29.) Two months later, the team has already collected 14,000 valid observations from 72 countries, with much more to come. The WageIndicator Foundation is led by GLO Fellow Paulien Osse as the Director, is a long-term partner of the GLO. (For more information about Director Osse, see our 2019 interview.) The right moment to interview Paulien Osse about the new venture, to give a progress report, and outline difficulties, challenges and the huge potentials.

The Continuous Global Online Survey ‘Living and Working in Corona Times’ 

GLO:  Any global crisis needs short-term data for nowcasting. How can WageIndicator help?

Paulien Osse: WageIndicator tries to help in two ways. First, we started a special Corona – Work Life Survey on March 23. Two months later it already collected 14,000  valid observations from 72 countries. Each day the state of affairs as covered by this living & working survey in corona-times is updated and shown in refreshed infographics, global, regional and country-specific. The survey is ongoing, 24/7, and will last as long as the pandemic is raging. Results show increased anxiety and dissatisfaction across the board, also in countries which remained almost untouched by the coronavirus, but with lockdowns in force.

A second global survey (which we run since 2014), mapping cost of living-levels, may become more and more relevant. Face-to-face data collection on streets and market places is not everywhere possible, but we do as we always do online and now also include web-based food shops. We understand that during the pandemic there are more online food shops, and people get more digitalised, EVERYWHERE. We want to show price levels as per July first world-wide in an attempt to picture the corona-impact on the cost of living and living wage-levels. As far as we can see now we will cover 120 countries with prices and living wages. 12 interns from FLAME University help us out!

These are our nowcasting contributions.

GLO:  You execute a special Covid work life survey for “everybody” and one for HR. What do you want to achieve, what is the focus?

Paulien Osse:
Generally speaking, we want to provide insight into the impact of the coronacrisis on the work/life balance of working individuals and their families. We assume there will be a long lasting aftermath, with less jobs, increased job insecurity, and a great variety in the consequences for different occupational groups, male/female, formal/informal employment etc. How will this work out for each of us? To be precise: in the survey you can select different contract types (for employees, workers, informals, and employers). You may choose from 1,700 occupations.

Our HR-survey is directed at (big) companies that have already participated in earlier compliance research, in Indonesia, Ethiopia and Uganda, both in the garment and flower industry. We now combine it with questions regarding health & safety and company policies to survive the coronacrisis. This data is shared each fortnight with trade union partners in these countries, as input for bipartite and tripartite negotiations and consultations. Highly in demand, since precise.

GLO: You have many country teams, how do they work and what problems do they face?

Paulien Osse: Like everybody else, our team members have to comply with lockdown regulations. Practically this has meant that, to varying degrees, all stayed at home much of the time, starting at the end of March beginning of April. For some this was a slight inconvenience. I personally work from home already for many years, so my routine did not change much. Others, like in India, lost help in the household or food delivery that they were used to. Now they shop and cook and clean and work and look after the kids all at once  Some are not even allowed to leave the house (45 degrees), or get medication for their ailing mother in an emergency. Another colleague saw her boy friend confined to the oil rig where he works. Forever it seems. There are many stories like these and worse, like in Mozambique where corona is for Rogerio, our Portuguese content manager, just another nuisance on top of terrorist acts and civil war. Very unnerving, all this. 

But as teams used to working and communicating online, we thrive. We are not beginners online, like many others have become just now. We have meetings more frequently, shorter, more efficient. And we Zoom-socialize on Fridays at a fixed time, sharing fun, frustrations and small victories, and the Italians serve Prosecco.

But, as already mentioned, the face-to-face data collection unfortunately has to be shelved for another few weeks, like in Bangladesh. This blocks progress, where we were about to embark on a nationwide wage and cost of living survey.

GLO: How do you judge the productivity of your teams in comparison to normal times?

Paulien Osse: Team members travel less – I mean NOT. So there are many more hours for productive work. Also, we see each other more frequently for online consultations. Thanks to the growing quality of Zoom, I must say. Because of all this practice we have faster, shorter meetings, more to the point. So, result: a nice set of new projects!  After 2 months however, I notice that this higher gear holds the risk of exhaustion. But when WageIndicator offers an escape from depressing living conditions under severe restrictions of movement, ‘take a rest’ is easier said than done. Some of us haven’t seen sunshine for many weeks.

GLO: Can the surveys identify losers and winners of the crisis, and what can we learn?

Paulien Osse: Our first scientific report from Pablo Pedraza, Martin Guzi and Kea Tijdens (see GLO DP # 544) covers the data collected in the first 6 weeks since the launch of the corona-survey. We must be very cautious given the paucity of data. Yet, on the most general level of outcomes we can say that there are no winners of the crisis, just losers. Working people do not feel less, but more anxious as a result of state-imposed emergency measures. Having to stay home and wear protective gear when going out, makes people not just more anxious but also more dissatisfied.

Not surprisingly, reduced income or prospects also increases anxiousness and dissatisfaction. Changes in the workload and/or routine have the same effect: an increase of tasks, but a decrease of the workload too, makes people more anxious and dissatisfied.

Our researchers conclude that their findings are relevant for policy-makers who design paths to recovery. They endorse the pursued maintenance of employment for as many people as possible: ‘protecting jobs implies the protection of citizen’s well-being’. They say this applies to the lockdown period studied, but also to the much needed recovery.  

GLO: Covid-19 has affected first the developed world, but now reaches the developing economies: can you trace differences in the major challenges?

Paulien Osse: The global lockdown was initiated to protect the infected, more developed parts of the world, first and fast. Several months into the pandemic it now becomes clear that the less developed and least-infected countries are paying a heavy economic price just the same. In Mozambique for instance, with very low corona-infection and zero death rates – but people report that they have lost their job last month. In Madagascar, also almost corona-free and no corona deaths reported, even 1 in 5 respondents say they lost their job already. A similar situation can be seen in Vietnam, where close to 1 in 10 respondents report to have lost their job as a consequence of the corona lockdown. Yet, corona-related death rates are zero in Vietnam. The figures are from the first week of May.

Keep in mind that working from home is an option for the higher educated. Working from home might be cool, but no fun with bad connections, and/or small children around. So in general for developing countries, hardly any corona, yet; but they suffer just the same, if not more.

GLO: Is working from home different between the sexes, e.g. is the burden on females larger and rising?

Paulien Osse: Women report anxiety more often than men, living with a partner makes people more satisfied and less anxious, but having children in the household makes no difference in this respect. But if prevailing gender pay gaps, prejudice and role divisions in the household are anything to go by, one may assume that women are hit harder than men. Also, they usually earn less and have smaller or less protected jobs. Therefore, prospects are not bright and single mothers in particular will need additional support in the recovery period. 

By the end of April most respondents in our survey had reported to believe that they will still have their job next month, however 1 in 3 was afraid to lose income in May. There might be a relation with the fact that more respondents around the world report that they got less, instead of more work. But it is too early to measure the real and lasting gender-specific impact, or for female dominated occupations.

GLO: Are older people more lonely and unhappy?

Paulien Osse: More lonely, we cannot say. But surprisingly, 50 plus respondents, though more vulnerable, report lower dissatisfaction and anxiety than the average from our survey.

GLO: How do you provide access for researchers to use country level and individual data?

Paulien Osse: The normal channels may be used, they are open to researchers. Daily update of data, check the project page. Daily fresh maps. Daily fresh graphs.

GLO: How satisfying is it for you to see the project prospering?

Paulien Osse: Fun! So far, we are there to stay. However: The reason for our corona-survey does not make one happy. Neither do the economic prospects for the near future, also and maybe more so in the developing world. Now the return of massive poverty threatens.

Our WageIndicator teams, also and especially from developing countries, are not so easily shocked. We are an experienced lot. For us the joy is to show how fast, lean and precise we can be, working remote. Believing also helps: our data may contribute! We try and keep our spirits high. As one out of 25 recently recruited interns from FLAME university noticed: “WageIndiators are hard working people from all around the world, very inspiring”.

With Paulien Osse spoke Klaus F. Zimmermann, GLO President.
Further activities and reports of the GLO Research Cluster on the coronavirus.

  • Left: Picture Franca Berkvens, Burkina Fasso: 20 observations in the Corona Work Life Survey.
  • Right: Picture Professor Rupa Korde. Her home office in Pune, India: 100 % lock down in Red Zone.
New researcher reality
Picture of Zoom meeting with some WageIndicator team members from
South Africa, India, Hungary, Italy and Amsterdam


Overview team of WageIndicator Foundation