One thing the current pandemic has made clear is “our” dependence on cheap and mobile labor; Think here about the seasonal farmworkers preventing crops from rotting on the fields and keeping supermarkets stocked, the drivers delivering fundamental food and drug rations to people shielding from the virus, and the nurses, doctors and other health care workers keeping entire health care systems running. During the pandemic however, this particular group of workers has found itself under increasingly demanding conditions, both due to a reshaping of labor regulations as well as a reshaping of mobility regulation.
We have witnessed first-hand the formation of a new divide among dependent wage workers in the first wave – between those that can afford home-office and those that need to continue their work on the frontline. A divide that has only become all the more apparent over the course of the second wave. Let us have a cursory look at some of the effects the pandemic has on this particular group of workers, now known as ‘essential workers’ thanks to their contribution for societies under lockdown.
The Coronavirus Crisis… …Of Our Middle-Class Way of Living
Among the several crises the coronavirus pandemic evoked, more than one is linked to the existential value of certain professions that are habitually underappreciated by the public and politicians alike. Right with the beginning of the first lockdown, some interesting debates about ‘essential workers’, such as public servants, emerged. Their functions were recognized as being of particular systemic relevance, both in the diverse frontline professions dealing with direct effects of coronavirus as well as keeping state functions running during a major crisis response.
The plight of mobile labor, equally crucial to the way our societies function, gained less attention. The manifold service provisions that allow a middle-class lifestyle, the helping hands needed to keep a household running, the care of children or elderly parents, the preparation of food, cleaning, mending clothes and appliances have all been interrupted by the pandemic by interrupting the very mobility of such labor and service provision.
And mobile labor along our global supply chains has virtually been (and still is) invisible.
While some of these professions, the live-in nurse from a different country, the foreign student serving food at your favorite restaurant got little attention, others were even received quite negatively. For example, meat processing plants have become known as hotspots of transmissions – and the mobile workers employed in these facilities across the Western Hemisphere have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and its detrimental health impact. In stark contrast to the re-evaluation of previously undervalued work, these mobile workers’ hard work to keep supply chains intact was met with disdain instead of compassion.
On the face of it, sedentary exploitable labor is treated differently from mobile exploitable labor in receiving societies. This differentiation is compounded by various other effects of the coronavirus and the continued pandemic, as a joined effect of a novel set of mobility restrictions amplified by a novel set of labor restrictions.
Multiple Higher Risks During a Pandemic
The virus itself already poses a greater risk to people from a lower class/with a lower social status or from a marginalized position in that they disproportionately suffer from a harder degree of symptoms [[For example, one third of patients in intensive care in the UK are from ethnic minorities (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/20/bma-chair-act-now-stop-further-disproportionate-bame-covid-deaths)]] and also constitute an over proportional group among those deceased from the virus. [[While the BBC claims that the reasons for this remain “unclear” (https://www.bbc.com/news/health-52889106), the Guardian points at co-morbidities, demographics and societal imbalances as explanatory variables (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/22/why-are-people-from-bame-groups-dying-disproportionately-of-covid-19).]] The higher risk of exposure in combination with the more severe disease course for these groups means as a result an exponentially higher risks during the pandemic. Yet, over the course of almost a full twelve months of a global pandemic, there is little effort to provide this vulnerable group with special protection. On the contrary, and despite the reconnaissance of the risk, their employment at the frontline continues due to individual financial pressure and lack of alternatives.
Also, the burden to exploitable groups is not exhausted by this very direct perspective on the coronavirus pandemic on exploitable mobile workers. Mobility restrictions set in place have additional profound repercussions around the world. For example, a ban on leaving the country under the pretext of national health and security interests left mobile Filipino nurses, often primary breadwinners in their families, stumbling to provide a living.
In other world regions, pastoral mobility has been interrupted to the detriment of livestock and livelihoods. A massive interruption to public transport meant for those dependent on such means of transport for their daily whereabouts, that they could not keep their employment or travel to a place safe for shielding. New border restrictions halted regional mobility (e.g. in Western Africa), and with ceasing trade and service provisions across borders, incomes dwindled.
While the situation is already dire for documented workers, it is even worse for those who are ‘undocumented’. For them, the pandemic means a vicious circle of loss of income and loss of shelter, which is further aggravated by missing access to health care and a general lack of traceability so necessary in times of the coronavirus pandemic.For undocumented workers, the exploitability has also worsened during this time of crisis: employers introduce heavy-handed controls and augmented demands without properly compensating their workers for the extra effort. With a global loss of formal employment and a rise of more informal forms of employment, both the margin and scale of exploitation must be assumed to have grossly intensified.
So paradoxically, despite a recognition of the value of essential work for societies, essential workers themselves have not been able to improve their situation. With the continuation of the pandemic and the continued demands on essential workers neither either extra compensation has been gained, nor additional rights, or other forms of leverage.
What The European Union Does About it (NOT)
On September 23, 2020, a good half-year into the pandemic in Europe, the European Union Commission introduced its New Pact on Asylum and Migration. This novel pact sought to solve the enigma of EU migration policy-making. It touches upon the areas of migration, asylum, integration and border management, and EU’s relationship with third countries. What it does not recognize is the way European economies and societies are dependent upon cheap mobile labor.
The pact singles out the attraction of talent to the EU. But this focal point on high-skilled labor migration is not matched with another focal point on lower-skilled or low-skilled, though equally ‘essential’. The pact insufficiently regulates sedentary exploitable labor, and mobile exploitable labor seems to be absent from the debate altogether.
If not during this pandemic, at some point the question of low-skilled migration will need to be addressed. The European middle-classes rely on less skilled and mobile labor for their standard of living – a more comprehensive approach to that labor is hence in their central interest.
A better regard for their work is thus what is needed, informed if not by plain humanism, then at least by the realization of the precious linkages that keep our communities afloat and the acknowledgment of our dependence on these global linkages. After all, essential mobile workers are not present in economies of the Global North out of altruism or boredom. Lacking opportunities in their home country, they are moving into positions in other countries that more privileged groups of that society do not want to take up, they work hard under often difficult conditions, and their contributions to society as a whole regularly outsize the little they receive in benefits in return for their work.
Once recognized as an intrinsic part of ‘our’ cherished middle-class lifestyle, action on mobile essential work is possible through different motivations: driven by self-interest, in the way we selfishly want to keep it up, or driven by compassion, in the way we are able to return some of the solidaric actions of ‘essential workers’ and embrace sharing resources. Global crises may not readily reinforce patterns of compassion, but they do give room for a redrawing.
We are thus arriving at the old conundrum: How can self-interest turn into action that also benefits the exploited? How can solidarity on ‘our’ side arise and encompass the vulnerable and invisible workers? Whether out of compassion or out of necessity, it is on us to put our attention, our vote, our money to that very intention and make that change.