Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid Working – The Corona Crisis and the Systemic Relevance of Jobs in Germany: Towards a New Appreciation and Solidarity?
Dr. des. Christian Schramm, Ruhr-University Bochum & Paul-Fiete Kramer, Institute for Work, Skills and Training, University Duisburg-Essen
6th of April 2020, most German borders are closed. COVID-19 has shut down almost the entire globe. In Germany, as in other countries, economic activities are reduced to an absolute minimum. But today, after pressure from the farmers’ association and even calls from the nationalist and anti-immigrant party AfD, the interior minister announces that temporary agricultural workers will be flown in from Eastern European countries to ensure the harvesting of fruits and vegetables of the season. The German and Austrian governments call for “Humanitarian Corridors” that should make possible the travelling of urgently needed domestic care workers for the elderly, the most vulnerable group in European societies at the current time.
This text is mainly about the possible change of what we refer to as systemically relevant (systemrelevant) jobs before and during this current crisis and the recognition we give to the people who carry them out. The way we treat different societal groups reflects what is valuable for us in ‘normal’ times and what becomes valuable during times of crisis. As many of the people in these recently called systemically important jobs are migrants and refugees, this article is also a call for solidarity with the countries and regions where they come from. Our response to COVID-19 has to consider the diverse relationships they maintain and the different local and national contexts they are embedded in.
What is meant by ‘systemic relevance’ in Germany?
The term ‘systemic relevance’ became popular in Germany only once so far. As figure 1 shows it reached its peak of usage between 2010 and 2014. This peak is linked to the global economic and financial crisis starting in 2008. Back then it was banks and other financial service providers whose existence was interpreted as systemically relevant (‘too big to fail’) and led to rescue packages worth billions of Euros, which were financed with taxpayers' money.
Figure 2 shows the co-occurences – words that are closely related – of the term systemrelevant in the German news corpus in 2018. It confirms the very tight relationship between ‘systemically relevant’ and the financial services industry.
In short, the industries and professions that seemed to be most relevant to the system were those that provided companies with capital. A look at the current discussions around the keyword ‘systemic relevance’ shows a completely different focus. A google search (deactivated personal web search) for the term systemrelevant on 7th of April 2020 limited on Germany showed 254 results of which 133, more than half, are linked to explicit discussions about the systemic relevance of different professional groups. Here we focus on these ‘new’ systemically relevant jobs in agriculture, the service sector and the health sector, particularly on the seasonal workers, harvest workers, grocery clerks, delivery services employees and carers, that are at the centre of the present debate.
So, since March 2020 we are no longer talking about investment banks as actors that are relevant for a ‘functioning’ financial market, but more often about ‘normal’ jobs. It is about professions that are of central importance for the everyday life of the majority of the population, who satisfy basic needs and necessities of life like healthcare and food.
However, these occupations are all too often located on the margins of the labour market – irrespective of their important social function – and suffer from a lack of gratification and recognition.
In sum, at this moment, the term ‘systemic relevance’ does not refer to one anonymous industry anymore. It relates, more than before, to the people who are doing different kinds of work and therefore indirectly to their biographies and life courses that are organised around it , to their identities as professionals and finally to the social order itself with professions being one of the main determinants for social status .
‘Systemic relevant’ Jobs in times of Coronavirus: Who carries them out and under which circumstances?
The research on labour market and migration in Germany shows that foreigners and persons with a migration background are over-represented in these new systemically relevant jobs. They tend to be located in the lower sectors of the labour market where non-standard forms of employment are frequent and the ‘home office’ privilege is not an option. One reason is the devaluation of qualifications during migration, discrimination by ethnicity, phenotype or religion is another reason why someone becomes a shop assistant instead of an office employee. Domestic care and agriculture sectors are heavily dependent on foreign labour and seriously threatened by the current restrictions on international movement. Only in the domestic care sectors there are between 300,000 and 500,000 mainly Eastern European women employed in unsecure working situations. Almost 90% don´t have a work contract. The seasonal agricultural labour force also consists mainly of the 300,000 Eastern Europeans coming each year to Germany. Not to forget the population with refugee background that entered the labour market faster than expected. While women work mainly in the health and education sectors, a big share of the men do their jobs in the production and logistics/transport sectors. But also in the higher segments of for example the health sector, migrants and refugees play a vital role. About 50,000 doctors with a foreign nationality (12.5% of the overall number of doctors) keep the German health system running during this crisis situation.
The above-mentioned lack of gratification in the ‘new’ systemically important occupations is already apparent when looking at the average pay. Nursing staff in health, child and elderly care who worked full time earned a gross monthly salary of between € 2,596 and € 3,415 at the end of 2018 (not considering many carers in informal employment relations with often lower salary). The earnings of employees in supermarkets (€ 1,857), who currently stock the empty shelves with new goods under a high risk of infection due to the close contact to a lot of customers, or of harvest and seasonal workers in agriculture (€ 1,949) are considerably lower . This means that the monthly earnings of those who work in systemically relevant jobs are in some cases even significantly lower than the average monthly gross earnings of full-time employees in Germany as a whole (€ 3,880). Furthermore a study by the German Institute for Economic Research emphasises that not only is there a monetary gratification crisis, but also a lack of social recognition (prestige) of the respective human work despite its importance (the people in sales professions in the food industry, who are currently often called ‘everyday heroes’, receive the least recognition). An appropriate recognition is all the more important as the need for human labour is also highlighted in the ongoing debate on the future of work in the context of digitisation. While the profession of bank clerks, with gross earnings of € 4,785 per month, is potentially almost completely replaceable by digital technologies , most of the systemic relevant jobs in health care or social services will continue to be performed by people.
The future of systemically relevant jobs: Towards a new appreciation and more solidarity, or just a ‘Weiter so’ ?
So, what to learn from the Corona crisis regarding appreciation of systemically relevant jobs and solidarity with people who carry them out?
Firstly, we not only have to properly financially reward the jobs that now, in a crisis situation, suddenly appear to be vital to us. We have to give them, and the people who carry them out, the gratification and social recognition that they deserve – now and in the future. Much seems to be moving in the right direction (not least because of the Corona pandemic): people’s poor working and living conditions (e.g. Tönnies) have made it on the political agenda, pushing for new regulations and higher wages; and there is applause for the so-called ‘everyday heroes’. So, ‘weiter so’ resp. 'business as usual'? The answer clearly is no. The experiences of the financial crisis have shown that a brief flare-up of a broad discussion about the systemic relevance of professions and industries and their regulation has only partially materialised. Today, investment banks are acting just as recklessly as before the financial crisis and stricter regulations (e.g. ‘financial transaction tax’) still seem a long way off. To make sure that after ‘talk’ comes ‘action’ trade unions, migrant organisations and all related actors should be as involved in moving forward as employers and politicians.
Secondly, in this renewal process an emphasis has to be put on the transnational entanglements that we find within many of the fields of work, and on the varied and multi-local forms of economic, cultural, social and political participation. The daily life references of many of the people in systemically relevant jobs develop transnationally, connecting families, communities and specific locations with each other. They position themselves, and are positioned by others in the societies of origin and arrival and in the transnational social spaces they help create . This means that it does not make much sense to try to protect workers only when they arrive on the German fields to harvest asparagus, if they were crowded, thousands of them waiting to board in the Romanian Cluj-Napoca airport. It implies also to consider the effects of the migration of thousands of qualified health workers to western European countries each year for the chronically poorly equipped healthcare systems of countries of origin such as Romania or Serbia, that could collapse under the pressure of COVID-19 patients. And how do the ones that have tried to return to their families, when the virus started to spread in arrival countries, deal with the rejection of their co-nationals and the accusations of having “brought back” the virus? It is clear that we cannot hide within our national borders. Peoples’ lives and the consequences of their action are not contained by them. The same counts for our solidarity with the more vulnerable, inside and beyond the European borders.
Finally, coming back to the events from the 6th of April. While asparagus is a luxury good that motivates us to go to great lengths to be able to eat it, we are not so perseverant in protecting the ones who collect it for us. The discussion about systemically relevant jobs and (international) solidarity should make us rethink the way in which we appreciate people and their work in our own national societies, but also how we want to live a real cross-border solidarity that recognises transnational connections of living and working together. That means that we have to accept the transnational contexts we live in, and conceptualise and practice solidarity not only for ‘us’. It also means to question the structures and mechanisms within and between capitalist societies that lead to the mentioned inequalities and imbalances regarding ‘systemically relevant’ jobs, people and their appreciation. The current Corona crisis should be seen as a starting point for a different approach to tackle these challenges. We as a society have to ‘walk the talk‘ regarding systemic relevance and solidarity.
 Kohli, M. (1985): Die Institutionalisierung des Lebenslaufs. In: KZfSS, 37, pp. 1-29.
 Beck, U.; Brater, M. & Daheim, H. (1980): Soziologie der Arbeit und Berufe: Grundlagen, Problemfelder, Forschungsergebnisse. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.
 Evaluation based on IAB-Data (https://job-futuromat.iab.de/) for different jobs (Altenpfleger/in; Gesundheits- und Kinderkrankenpfleger/in; Gesundheits- und Krankenpflegehelfer/in; Helfer/in im Verkauf; Helfer/in in der Landwirtschaft; Bankkaufmann/-frau).
 In latest time the term ‘Weiter so’ was used in Germany to describe and to criticise a (political) practice that just ‘carries on as if nothing had happened’ and by this more or less ignores moments of crisis and unsolved societal challenges.
 Pries, L. (2010): Transnationalisierung. Theorie und Empirie grenzüberschreitender Vergesellschaftung. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.
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