Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Working – Work Disruption in a Context of Pandemics: Social Bonds and the ‘Crisis Society’ (RN17)
Claudia Marà, KU Leuven, Belgium
Valeria Pulignano, KU Leuven, Belgium
RN17 Work, Employment and Industrial Relations Coordinator 2019-2021
There are many examples where the lessons of the past are ignored […]; one example is that governments have often failed to anticipate and support citizens through the social and economic impacts of pandemics [..] these crises expose social inequality.
Graham Mooney, Historian of Medicine at Johns Hopkins.
History is no stranger to global disease outbreaks, and each of them not only has taught us something about how to manage their spread medically, but also has told us something about important aspects of our sociality. For example, since the 1970s HIV/AIDS has had many lessons for humanity about the deadly danger of social stigma. Whether we are following those lessons today is a different story. Our contention here draws from a recent article that the world economist Joseph E. Stiglitz published in a digital media journal called Social Europe, where the author calls our attention to the dramatic consequences and threats current events such as the Coronavirus pandemic pose for everybody’s health as well as for the economy and society at large. Stiglitz’s argument urges us to rethink the importance of the role of governments, public policy and public values as the antidote against what Ulrich Beck some time ago notably defined as ‘risk society’. From a different perspective, but with a similar approach, the eloquent American feminist social scientist Nancy Fraser, in her book entitled Social Reproduction Theory of 2017, argues that a sustainable society is one that creates and maintains social bonds. Fraser’s focus is particularly on caring, which she sees as providing ties between generations as well as within and across communities at large, and which is – she argues – under threat because of the withdrawal in public support under conditions of neoliberal financialised capitalism.
Nowadays, the Coronavirus urges us more than ever to rethink sustainable solutions which are able to mitigate the health-related, social and economic consequences of the pandemic. To put it in the manner of Nancy Fraser, ‘liberal capitalism systematically consumes our capacities to sustain social bonds’. The result is a ‘crisis society’ that is every bit as serious and systemic, and which brings together the dramatic financial, political, ecological, social and health consequences we have been (and are) experiencing nowadays, and which are, in any case, strongly intertwined with one another.
Coronavirus and the ‘Crisis Society’
The Coronavirus pandemic is not only changing our sociality across the world, but it is also above all magnifying the distortions of a socio-political and socio-economic system which underpins the changes imposed by the neoliberal ideology. One of the foremost distortions is social inequality, of which growing social divides and increasing precarious working conditions of some social groups in the labour market are the immediate and visible reflection. Our focus here is on those groups of workers who suffer the most, since they are the most at risk under the conditions of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Why? Because these workers are lacking social and human rights (including collective bargaining and participation rights), and they are experiencing low and/or the absence of social protection (including employment and adequate health and social benefits, such as sickness benefits). The Coronavirus pandemic teaches us all that the focus of a sustainable society should be on guaranteeing social health, social protection and social insurance to all. Sadly, this is not so at the current point in time. This is the case both for those who cannot work (i.e. the unemployed) and also those who work but do not have guaranteed a specific amount of work and/or working hours (e.g. on call and zero-hours contracts), as well as all those who work under conditions of low pay and which in the majority of the cases are migrants, women, and youth, segregated in specific sectors of the economy such as cleaning, horeca and retail. However, these workers are also those who have entered what some label the future of work, and who therefore – and in a quite cynical way – are often considered the workers of the future. How many of these workers are there, and where do they work?
Zooming in on the Future of Work
A large proportion of the European workforce works today under employment arrangements that are usually referred to as non-standard – the ‘standard’ being a good, old-fashioned, full-time, open-ended, employee contract. Just to mention a few cases, this category includes dependent self-employed, temp-agency workers, bogus self-employed, digital platform workers, and so on, with many potential overlaps between them (e.g. a dependent self-employed person working on digital platforms).
Let’s look at self-employed workers, for instance. They are the first to succumb in a situation of a general slow-down of the productive system, one might guess. Quite correctly so, as we can gather from the most diverse outlets, be they freelancers’ social media communities, professional associations (as is the case for the survey run by ACTA in Italy), and international solidarity campaigns which were started from scratch a few days after the Coronavirus crisis erupted in the Western world, such as in the case of I lost my gig.
The case of the self-employed is particularly telling, since they arguably represent one of the most vulnerable groups in the current emergency circumstances. As their income is based on a client-provider relationship (as opposed to an employer-employee connection), if the client withdraws his or her order, the worker loses his or her pay. And by virtue of his or her independent status, s/he is required to shoulder the responsibility for such inconveniences. While in the past independent workers were found in mostly high-class occupations such as attorneys, private doctors, architects and the like, today this category is a lot larger and more varied (and with many struggling to make hands meet). Quite consistently across Europe, the governmental incentives to shift to self-employment have flourished in the post-2008 crisis period; today, we may be seeing the boomerang effect of this.
Interestingly, some European countries are now enacting measures aimed at supporting independent workers during lockdown, such as in Italy with the Decreto Cura Italia (‘Heal-Italy Decree’), and in Belgium, where solo self-employed people are included in the measures taken to assist SMEs.
A specific sub-group of the self-employed workforce is represented by digital platform workers. Taking a closer look at this category may be worthwhile in this phase of Covid-19-induced lockdown. With bars, restaurants and catering services shut down as a consequence of the lockdown measures, many of these activities have turned to home-delivery through food delivery platforms (UberEats, Foodora, Glovo, etc.), as a way to keep their businesses going even in times of shutdown. Ironically, however, no-one seems to realise that your pizza does not get delivered by a robot but by an individual who is put in danger – of catching the disease, of becoming a vehicle for its spread, and so on – for just a few Euros per delivery and (usually) with no health insurance provided by the platform. In Italy, where the lockdown was first implemented in Europe, delivery riders have been protesting in order to raise attention to their current working conditions.
Given the focus on health professions in the current emergency, it is worth reporting one final, yet significant datum. Against the background of the consistent expansion of the self-employed workforce across European countries, the healthcare and social assistance sector shows the fastest increase, with an EU average of 27.8% in the period 2008–2017 . Many of those we are calling ‘heroes’ today for the tireless contribution they are making in saving lives against Covid-19 may then be working with very little social protection, with no working hours limits, and generally with less entitlements than a normal employee would have.
The Work of the Future
It goes without saying that a situation like the one experienced by the workers we often refer to as representing ‘the future of work’ is not sustainable. To save society from the crisis we experience nowadays, by attempting a solution to the several distortions which the Coronavirus has very recently contributed to, highlights the need to rethink the ways in which we live and work in our societies today. In sum, policymakers and non-governmental organisations need to focus squarely on key public goods and values, and frame around those the work of the future. How this should be done in practice is by no means straightforward, given that no single actor can ultimately be held responsible for what we often experience. However, defining the conditions and principles of a sustainable society requires an acute awareness of a form of democratic governance to which everybody – particularly national governments and European institutions – should contribute to creating.
 INPS. (2018) Rapporto Annuale XVII.
This text is based on the ERC AdG ResPecTMe project ‘Researching Precariousness across the Paid/Unpaid Work Continuum’. The project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement no. 833577).
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