Appreciated or exploited? Key workers in a coronavirus world

Let us thank front-line workers with more than just words – let us reward them with decent pay and conditions.

A medical worker wearing a protective mask and suit treats patients suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in an intensive care unit at the Oglio Po hospital in Cremona, Italy March 19, 2020. R
A medical worker treats patients suffering from COVID-19 in an intensive care unit at the Oglio Po hospital in Cremona, Italy on March 19, 2020 [File: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters]

Around the world, workers in what have been deemed “essential services” are tirelessly trying to keep the coronavirus pandemic in check and to keep us all going in the meantime.

These are the nurses, farmworkers, grocery clerks, truck drivers and teachers, whose backs many of us stand on so that we can engage in our “social distancing”.

And guess what – an eight or, perhaps, 10-hour shift in a grocery store, whether stocking shelves in France or working the cash register in the United States, was not a particularly pleasant experience before the coronavirus shocked the world into realising that these essential workers exist.

The question is, will this global health emergency wake us up to the need to change our global economy to more fairly benefit the many who keep it afloat? Or, will we merely recognise the workers in essential services now with a grin when we see them at the store (where you can still shop in stores) or the clinic, or a “thank you” post on Facebook, only to forget about them tomorrow?

The definition of essential services varies by country but, typically, the same occupations tend to make the list.

For instance, when California established its “shelter in placeorder, which calls upon the state’s residents to stay at home when at all possible and to refrain from public gatherings, it explicitly exempted professions in what the US federal government deems the “critical infrastructure sector“.

This sector includes people who work in agriculture, healthcare, water and waste management, education and public security, including specific professions such as police officers, firefighters, first-responders, cable installation workers and journalists.

Let us start with agriculture – what has been going on in food production while so many of us have been staying at home and keeping a safe distance from our neighbours?

In California – Monterey county specifically – farmworkers have been told that they are exempt from the shelter-in-place order and are expected to continue working in the fields.

This means there is no social distancing for farmworkers – that is, unless the space that counts is the one between the people who eat California lettuce from the safety of their homes and the workers who risk their health when picking it.

The message is clear – if you are labouring in the fields in California, where most of the US’s fruits and vegetables originate, then you have to go to work, no matter if a virus infects thousands, daily.

To make matters worse, some estimate that between 50 percent and 75 percent of the close-to-three-million people who work in the fields are undocumented immigrants, which makes them subject to detention and possible deportation. Their labour is also poorly paid, with an average salary between $15,000 and $18,000 a year.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron declared those who work in the food industry – grocery store workers included – to be essential. Thanks to this, the French people can rest assured that when they go out and do their shopping, the coronavirus will not shutter the places where they buy their daily necessities.

Were these workers similarly appreciated by the government before the coronavirus came to France? Not really – Macron orchestrated a labour reform that took a knife to the industry, leading stores such as the supermarket chain, Carrefour, to lay off thousands of people just a couple of years ago.

Those still working, because they are expected to do so, are doing so for longer periods of time than before because, during his tenure, their president has given companies greater powers to dismiss workers and to set the payments in cases of unfair dismissal.

The situation is similar in the United Kingdom. There, it is the workers in the “key industries” who keep the economy going. Looking at healthcare especially, the country’s already understaffed National Health Service – as a result of 10 years of government austerity policies – is being forced by the coronavirus outbreak to take on thousands of unexpected patients.

And in the UK, more than 13 percent of people working in healthcare are foreign nationals. To add insult to injury, these are people who have had to endure arguably racist remarks by the country’s prime minister which have mocked darker-skinned, foreign-born, working people.

Across these many countries, it is unclear what would happen if essential workers decide that they do not want to work and stay at home like the rest of us, as well as for how long they will continue to labour under extreme conditions.

If history is any guide then it indicates that the exploitation of essential workers can go on almost without end.

Remember the Braceros, the farmworkers of Mexican origin who were recruited during World War II to labour in the US. This programme was initially crafted as an emergency measure, which began in 1942, to ensure the supply of food to the American population during wartime. Wages were set prior to the workers’ arrival, as was their lodging and labour conditions, essentially ensuring that they had no representation and no way to voice complaints.

For this reason, taking both the present situation and our history into consideration, we must make this latest crisis into an opportunity.

This is the precise moment to demand not only progressive policies – living wages for everyone, full citizenship for undocumented workers, extensive and fully-funded social services such as healthcare – but also that our global economy change course.

The people ensuring our survival now need to have more power when dealing with political and economic elites in the future, whether through unions or civil society organisations, so that future crises never compel so many to risk so much again.

The stakes are too high, for everyone. What if workers get sick, or after working under extreme duress, they simply cannot keep up? Or if, when their labour conditions worsen in hospitals, in grocery stores and in the fields, they decide now is the time to protest and demand changes? What then?

We can do our social distancing all we want. But without food, we will see how long that lasts.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.