Precarious work matters

Ángel Marroquín

It is only me or someone else has noted the strange expressions that we learned this year. Covid bubble, corona-babies, new normal, lockdown, flattering the curve and so forth. Above all, the strangest one is “essential work”. Let me tell you why.

Let me start with a question. Why these jobs, that only yesterday were synonymous of precarious, low paid, long hours shifts and little security, have received overnight the label of essential? Workers such as health carers, fruit pickers, lorry drivers, cleaners, deliveroo bikers, kitchen staff, to name some, are to a large extent migrants, poor and vulnerable. These jobs have become more necessary as a result of the lockdowns and related pandemic consequences. Many of these workers, like those working in nursing homes, have been called heroes and referred to by political authorities as examples of resilience and commitment. The working conditions of these workers, nonetheless, have not been addressed.

The COVID epidemic triggered a crisis in different sectors of the economy which have become more dependent on low paid workers whose jobs were previously deemed nothing but essential. I remember the case of a large strawberries farm which was questioned for bringing foreign workers amidst the first lockdown; despite coming every year and enduring crowded accommodation and related conditions, it was not until locals felt threatened by the potential health risk that they questioned their temporal living conditions. The management of the farm explained how every year they advertised the jobs getting none or very few applications from nationals, and so they depended on foreign labour.

Lockdowns have imposed changes and restrictions in the labour market but the workers who work in hospitals, nursing homes, kitchens, supermarket and delivery have continued working for long hours, as usual. The difference was the fact that, this time, they were putting their life at risk because of the pandemic. They showed rigour, courage and strength when the situation was turning dangerous.

The question remains: have the people who do these jobs always been considered essential?  Or only now, when they are needed not to stop working and to carry on as usual, meaning putting their live at risk, considered heroes, examples of resilience and so forth? Nurses, care home assistants, fruit pickers, cashiers and supermarket staff, nursing home staff, deliveroo bikers, kitchen staff and so on. They have been working, long before the pandemic, away from cameras and publicity. They have been doing their jobs anonymously, and these jobs have always involved benefit to society.

I remember the case of one migrant who was a member of the staff in a nursing home. He had been notified of an imminent deportation. The manager of the nursing home contacted the press and some TDs took on the case. The manager explained how the worker, who more likely represented many others, had working day after day during the worst period of the first lockdown and he deserved better. In the end, the deportation was stopped and, moreover, all deportations were put on hold because of the pandemic crisis. People clapped the decision. Do you think that this situation would be possible in normal circumstances?  Health and nursing home carers are very much needed and migrants represent a large proportion of them; however, the necessity of their labour did not stopped earlier deportations.

Hypocrisy is a great problem in our societies. Maybe it is time to remember that every work is essential not because it is profitable but because it is performed by human beings who use their skills to help other human beings. It does not matter if this person is white, black or red, their work is essential because it contributes in different ways. Everybody’s work is essential in their own way, and it deserves recognition and a fair retribution.

Maybe one of the teachings that we have to learn from this pandemic is this one.

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