Covid-19: how the health crisis is exposing the omnipresence and mundanity of unfree labour in our economies

The exploitation of workers is nothing new, yet how might we challenge this exploitation? The recent Covid pandemic highlights how essential workers are to our well-being and reproduction. We should therefore rethink the value we attribute to labour.

As we slowly emerge from the second lockdown and prepare with hope for the new year, I thought it timely to reflect on some of the lessons we can draw from this past year. Amongst the extensive media coverage, reporting the evolution of the pandemic and the resulting crisis, a recurring theme discussed (in the press) was one concerned with the plight of essential workers and more generally the unsafe and exploitative working conditions of workers across sectors in our societies. This was both discussed in the context of developing economies (see examples here and here) and advanced capitalist states.

In the UK for instance, numerous stories of overworked and underpaid workers in these times of crisis were denounced. Chief among them were the ‘heroes of the pandemic’, NHS health workers and care staff tending to the ill and elderly, coping as best they could with the number of covid-19 patients in an already stretched and overburdened capacity. Inadequately equipped in a high risk environment, underpaid and overworked, lacking social protection, health services were still expected to work hard in the name of solidarity despite their attempts to protest their working conditions. Many other stories of exploitation were also brought to light and scrutinised such as the scandalous working conditions of garment workers in a Leicester factory supplying Boohoo, insecure and precarious cleaners and employees keeping our offices and buildings virus-free, farmworkers ‘picking for Britain’ and feeding the nation under slavery-like conditions, sex workers, domestic workers and others left behind and unable to access Covid-19 safety nets.

What is for certain, is that the crisis has underscored the exploitation of many workers around the world, particularly the ones fulfilling essential activities for the functioning and the reproduction of our societies. Far be it from me to complain about this new spotlight nor about the much-needed condemnation of labour abuses and the additional pressure on workers stemming from the current crisis, rather I thought it timely and important to reiterate and clarify certain points. This is not new and this is not exceptional. Yes, exploitation is happening in our economies and not just in times of crisis. No, it does not only touch women working in the streets nor migrants in the crop fields. Rather, it is a phenomenon which is much more common and mundane than we think it is despite the narratives advancing individualised criminal logics or mistaking glorified heroic sacrifices for exploitative employment relationships. These are misleading as they direct our attention away from the embeddedness and everyday characteristic of this issue in our capitalist economic system. 

Many researchers have expressed and demonstrated this in lengthy and convincing terms (see also here and here). Forms of work including exploitative labour forms are to be situated on a spectrum of labour relations ranging from slavery like conditions or forced labour, to what, we consider ‘free’, stable and fulfilling employment. A multitude of factors, cultural, social, economic and political, explain an individuals’ position on this continuum. Additionally, in the same way the pandemic has not affected us all equally, exploitation is also discriminatory. Vulnerability to labour unfreedoms disproportionately affects people along the lines of gender, citizenship, race, class among other social markers. Therefore, exploitation, as an everyday process of capitalism, takes various forms and degree. It is the rule rather than the exception, from unpaid reproductive work of women, poor workers in abattoirs or garment factories, to nurses and cashiers struggling to make ends meet. Finally and importantly, this crisis has also highlighted that the most vital functions of society are affected by issues of exploitation. The extent of this phenomenon, in addition to causing immense suffering, affects our capacity to sustain social bonds in society and our own social reproduction.

The question I next ask, following this renewed spotlight on the extent and the mundane aspect of the phenomenon of exploitation affecting a multitude of workers all the way to the very foundational social tissue of our society: what are we to do about it? Is this renewed increased awareness going to initiate the change we need to address this issue?  

My fear is that the toiling of certain workers is somewhat taken for a given and is, to a certain extent, no longer surprising. Indeed we hear and read about labour unfreedoms, devaluation and exploitation often, if not daily, ‘and the repetition appears endless, irremediable’ (Butler, 2009, p.13). In the same way Judith Butler explains that we, as a society, make a distinction between people whose bodies and lives are grievable and those whose death is not valued, maybe, unconsciously, we assume that the exploitation of certain workers’ bodies are not grievable? Or that their resources are endless and their exploitation inevitable? This renders the denunciation of their exploitation challenging because the collective conscience is used to this narrative and to the fatalistic plight of certain groups of the population. As harsh as those words might seem I think they are worth considering and they generate a question we need to ask ourselves. Do we think the actual distribution of grieving and value attributed to labour bodies is viable and human?  As this crisis highlights and creates more awareness of what is ‘essential’ for the society’s reproduction and well-being we ought to rethink the value we attribute to labour activities, in a radically more caring, sustainable, inclusive and equal way and break out from our lethargy (for a discussion on social and material labour value see here).