ourEconomy: Opinion

The coronavirus has exposed the dangers of an economy built on insecurity

The outbreak has shown that we are only as safe as the most vulnerable in society. When many workers lack basic protections, we all suffer.

Katherine Hearst
11 March 2020, 11.36am
Coronavirus signage at Whiston Hospital in Merseyside
Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images

Throughout my adult life I have been employed on zero-hour contracts. For the most part, I have been insulated from the worst effects of precarity, as I have been lucky enough to have good health. But many of my co-workers have not been so lucky.

I have seen chronically ill colleagues drag themselves through shifts that nobody should ever have to endure. On one occasion I found a colleague bent over in pain who had come to work because she couldn’t afford to lose the pay from a three hour shift. Another colleague developed an incurable lung condition because he was forced to sleep on public transport. He would regularly disappear to the toilets to hide his hacking cough.

These people are not Amazon employees, but ushers at a publicly funded theatre. Our employer is outwardly progressive – the theatre strives to feature the work of BME writers and artists (although last year there were more writers named Simon than there were women). It recently dropped a sponsorship deal with a big oil company, and is working hard to lower its carbon footprint.

However, it employs a workforce of vulnerable workers with almost no worker protection. If we get sick, we risk not being able to pay our rent.

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The coronavirus outbreak has forced us to confront the reality about our insecure labour market. Denying workers in the sixth richest country in the world basic protections is not merely unjust – it is also dangerous.

I’ve heard friends in more secure jobs take comfort in the fact that “it won’t affect us.” But the coronavirus outbreak has shown that we are only as safe as the most vulnerable people in society.

Gig economy workers are mobile, and often have public facing roles. The lack of sick pay means it is impossible for them to self-isolate. Our economy cannot function without these workers; the fragile fabric of our society is stitched together by their labour. Gig economy workers don’t just deliver your takeaway – they care for the elderly and our children, they clean our workplaces, and they courier blood.

It took me a while to grasp the implications of a contract without sick pay. I’ve been lucky, but recently I suffered a string of illnesses that were mainly stress induced. I saw the holes starting to appear in my bank statement and panicked, and took fewer sick days each time. What began as something innocuous eventually became something much worse. After a recent visit to the GP I was advised to rest at home “if you can afford to”.

Like many of my colleagues, I chose this work for its flexibility. It allowed me to apply myself to my creative work. But the absence of any worker protection means that in practice it is quite the opposite ­– it constrains workers to work continuously even when they’re sick, and it promotes self-exploitation.

Some of my co-workers defend their contracts on the basis of the freedom it gives them. Most of them are actors and artists who like having the option of moving a shift for a gig or an audition.

When they get sick, they don’t blame their contracts – they blame their bodies. I’ve seen the frustration and embarrassment on the faces of chronically ill colleagues. The woman who was bent over in pain was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. She didn’t want to tell management because she thought ‘they wouldn’t think it was a big deal’. She didn’t want to ‘look bad’ and see her shifts disappear. Right now, many people will be having similar thoughts in response to the coronavirus.

Thanks to the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, migrants will be even more vulnerable to infection. Those who are excluded from our welfare system will have no choice but to place themselves and others at risk, while unfair healthcare charges will deter sick migrants from seeking medical help.

There are also clear parallels to the impact of climate disruption. Last year, I mobilised colleagues to join the youth climate strikes. We marched in solidarity with the school strikers under the banner of ‘art workers support the climate strikers.’ In a speech addressed to my colleagues and supporters, I spoke about the need to connect meaningful climate action with the rights of its workers in the arts sector. Shortly after, I was contacted by a member of management who was keen to understand what I meant when I said that workplaces needed to do more than reducing their carbon footprint.

When I explained that exploitative contracts and financial stress prevented workers from participating in the climate strikes, and that unprotected workers would suffer the most from extreme weather, he looked at me blankly. He didn’t see the connection.

When it comes to the impact of climate change and extreme weather, it’s clear that gig economy workers will be left out in the cold.

The coronavirus has exposed the precariousness of an economy that is propped up by the labour of workers with no protection. In the event of an emergency, people who have been viewed as a disposable workforce will be treated as such.

People are rightly demanding that gig economy workers become entitled to sick pay to prevent the virus from spreading. But this is not enough: we must also use this as an opportunity to ask why so many workers were without it in the first place. Everyone should have access to a safety net when they are sick, regardless of what type of employment they are in.

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