These mornings when I peer down into my courtyard I see certain people leaving their homes. The nurse on the floor below me, the cleaner in third, the youngster who operates the cash register at the grocery store. They gather by the bus stop, six feet apart, and head to work. They are the designated “vital workforce” in the corona pandemic.
The rest of us, who have jobs that do not require uniforms and assigned shifts, have the privilege to remain safe in our homes.
This morning routine is now a global occurrence, as governments across the world have divided the workforce in two. Professionals who do not perform critical functions in society must stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The rest must keep working to prevent society from collapsing. US authorities have identified one fourth of the workforce as “essential”. The British government calls them “key workers”.
Governments across the world have divided the workforce in two.
They include more than the obvious actors in times of crisis, such as the government, military and state institutions. Most have ordinary jobs. Cleaners are fighting Covid-19 with washcloths and soap, exposing themselves to great risk. Farm labourers are doubling their efforts to maintain food production. Storage workers re-fill empty racks as consumers grab more than they can carry. Truck drivers transport critical goods across increasingly closed-off state borders. Home care workers visit the elderly who need medicines and care.
These professions, which we are only now discovering are essential for our survival, share two features. Across the world, vital workers are poorly paid and poorly regarded.
Even in my home country Norway, with low income inequality and strong unions, our nurses, transporters and retail store workers earn half as much as financiers, consultants and advertisers, who are sitting at home these days.
Beyond low wages, those who keep society running also rank low on the ladder of prestige. Cleaners are the prime example. Healthy communities have always depended on the efforts of men and women who wash and sanitize our surroundings. Right now, cleaning is perhaps the world’s most important profession. It is also the least prestigious.
The current crisis forces us to reconsider why this should be the case. Given that grocery store workers, truck drivers and nurses are so vital, why should they earn less than those who are sitting at home, lost in an addictive mix of Twitter, screaming kids and online staff meetings? Why should they rank lower in the hierarchy of prestige?
Why should they rank lower in the hierarchy of prestige?
The pandemic has now entered what anthropologists call the liminal stage, the in-between period where many possibilities open. Already, the crisis has kicked into gear measures that were unimaginable just weeks ago.
In Portugal, migrants are receiving full rights as residents. Yesterday, politicians argued that such humane policies were dangerous.
In France, supermarket chains are offering bonuses of up to 1000 Euros to reward employees showing up for work. Yesterday, managers had no money for pay raises.
In the UK, homeless people are allowed to stay in hotels free of charge. Yesterday, they were considered criminals.
And in the US, the government is requisitioning private industry to produce goods for the benefit of all. Yesterday, leaders trusted the free market to solve any problem of demand.
On a longer term, the reckoning of the pandemic should also mark the start of something even deeper, a new understanding of who actually matters in the workforce.
Blue-collar workers have always kept societies running, often at great personal sacrifice. Ironically, many of the very leaders who are now applauding health care workers have systematically undermined their demands for more resources, better labor conditions, even the right to organize. A video clip that is making rounds on social media shows how conservative politicians in the UK cheered as they voted to block a pay raise for nurses in 2017.
The crisis reveals not just who we are, but also who we were.
The crisis reveals not just who we are, but also who we were : modern societies that underpaid and undervalued our most vital workers. Now we can all appreciate the importance of cleaners, garbage collectors and care workers. Their efforts meet real needs, and deliver services that improve people’s lives.
On the other end of the spectrum, work that simply produces demand for things that people do not need, or reduces the worth of some people over others, is less valuable. Corporate lawyers, marketers and consultants can stop going to work and nothing changes. At least not for the worse.
Those who keep us all fed and healthy in the shutdown merit more than a standing ovation. They deserve support in their fight for living wages and working conditions. They deserve recognition for what they are: the ones who actually matter in the workforce.
All this is becoming visible now because we, the worlds’ privileged, non-essential workers, have put our lives in their hands.