The relative comfort with which white-collar workers have weathered the current pandemic has been underwritten by the labour of a largely invisible group of people known euphemistically as “essential workers”. Whether working in a hospital or home for elderly people, filling prescriptions, delivering the mail or selling groceries, these workers have ensured that the pandemic did not lead to wider societal collapse.
The risks borne by workers whose labour sustains global and national supply chains are acute. In the US, Covid-19 mortality in the meatpacking industry is so severe that the House of Representatives is investigating the culpability of several major firms. The second wave of the virus has left healthcare staff from Britain to South Africa to Colombia to Thailand exhausted and traumatised, undermining their ability to control new outbreaks and minimise mortality. Informal sector workers in Africa have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Migrants play a large role in essential services in many countries, and yet have been particularly vulnerable to catching Covid-19, due to often cramped living and crowded commuting, and they have been among the first to be made unemployed.
The contribution of essential workers has been met with admiration, but this needs to be translated into a binding commitment that recognises the service they have provided throughout the pandemic, and protects them from crises to come, disease related or otherwise. The worsening effects of climate change will have a profound effect on essential workers in agriculture and the developing world at large, while the increasing pace of automation threatens to undermine whatever economic security remains to them, making work more precarious. Unaddressed, these pressures could create another global crisis, and subsequent rising inequality and discontent could provoke a populist backlash and political upheaval. As we saw over the past decade, it was the financial crisis and failure to manage the resulting inequality and injustice that propelled Donald Trump into the White House and led to Brexit in Britain.
So what would a fair deal for essential workers look like? Canada, Indonesia and Ghana have instituted pay raises for the workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic, but in the UK, US and many other countries such measures are haphazard. Most major corporations and governments have paid lip service to essential workers but failed to take meaningful action.
However, the armed forces could provide a model for how to protect workers facing severe personal risks in times of crisis. The US shares the risks faced by the military across society: tax dollars fund pensions and healthcare above civilian levels, and GI Bill benefits allow veterans to get further education and training. In the UK, in addition to no fault compensation for families in cases of death or illness, military personnel receive allowances for “the danger in specified operational locations” and “conditions involving an exceptional degree of discomfort or fatigue”. These conditions apply to many essential workers during the Covid-19 crisis and will apply in future.
There are other, grimmer parallels between the risks confronted by soldiers and essential workers. The total deaths from Covid-19 worldwide has now exceeded 2.5 million, as much as the total deaths in battle globally over 30 years, from 1989 to 2019. Of course, not all of these are essential workers, but along with elderly people they have carried a disproportionate burden: long-term care work is now one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Most societies have tried to protect elderly people, but for essential workers we have done the opposite by asking them to take risks for others.
A new approach to risk is required in both the public and private sectors. Low income workers in OECD countries have seen a decline in real wages as well as an erosion of labour rights and collective bargaining power over a 30-year period. Necessary actions to rectify this include minimum wage increases, legal frameworks that ensure freedom of association and support collective bargaining, and broadening labour protections to contractors and informal sector and gig workers. For some countries such as the US, universal health coverage is required. Immigration laws should recognise the role of migrant workers in essential services. And to prepare us better for the next crisis, governments should mandate frameworks that automatically trigger generous levels of hazard pay and no-fault compensation for workers and their families who suffer illness or death in the line of duty.
Our “soldiers” are not only in the armed forces these days. The same respect that most societies extend to the armed forces should be broadened to include those people who have taken profound personal risks to protect the rest of us. We owe them nothing less.
This content first appear on the guardian