2021, the Year of the Worker
Updated: Jan 25, 2022
Covid-19 has brought about a new lexicon for how we describe non-skilled low paying service jobs. People have been quick to give tokenistic support for front line and essential workers, putting up lawn signs, and brandishing slogans of support on their various social media accounts. Unfortunately, most heroes in this pandemic are heroes out of necessity, not by choice. While those in the medical field should receive appropriate praise for their perseverance and dedication throughout a global pandemic, it is fair to say that they are performing tasks within their job description. The same can not be said for supermarket cashiers, couriers, and uber eats delivery people. Yes, they are performing the same everyday tasks that were in their initial job description, except now they are wearing masks, keeping socially distant, and among the most at risk of contracting a deadly virus. Unlike doctors, these essential workers are being paid around the minimum wage and have little prospects of upward mobility.
Like most tokenistic gestures on social media, the support for essential workers is by in large shallow. Globalization has allowed the upper and middle class to outsource jobs, products, and services in return for affordable consumerism. From manufacturing moving overseas to the intake of thousands of seasonal workers for unpleasant farming jobs we have normalized the destruction at the bottom for the betterment at the top. So it is no surprise that during the pandemic we have also normalized the outsourcing of COVID risk. Based on movies like Contagion, we all imagined that during the pandemic heroes would be medical staff in hazmat suits and military professionals handing out aid and keeping order. In reality, those same heroes are joined by factory workers, supermarket cashiers, and all the other jobs linked to supply chain upkeep. The working class have enabled the middle and upper class to live in a protected bubble working at home, bringing them food, keeping their lights on, and delivering them their most recent useless kitchen gadgets from Amazon.
How many of us think twice before ordering crispy vegan quinoa cakes and having someone else take on the pandemic transportation risk so that we remain in our sweat pants and watch the seventh straight episode of our latest show? Health and safety guidelines, while increased, are not capable of preventing serious outbreaks in any workplace that has close indoor proximity. Somehow we have performed mental gymnastics to believe that ordering takeout is a virtuous act of support for small business, ignoring the fact that large middlemen siphon off major percentages of the profit and pay their employees often below minimum wage. Workers should be compensated for the value they bring to their respective company, so following that logic, does it not make sense that during a pandemic this value is increased considering the extra risk involved? Like any crisis, whether it be war, natural disaster, or a global pandemic, poor and working-class people have always been on the front lines, taking the highest casualties, and ultimately being the unsung heroes in the aftermath. We simply expect the unwashed and uneducated to keep our society running regardless of the adversity, the inalienable duty of the underclass. Once the dust settles and we as a society begin to return to normal, these sacrifices will be hidden in the statistics of case numbers and fatalities.
Times of crisis have always been touchstone moments for the working class. After facing the brunt of adversity, class consciousness tends to grow to the point of serious political activism. Following the First World War there was a record number of strikes with over 350,000 workers taking part between 1916 and 1920. This period was also marked by a healthy amount of political cooperation between moderate labourists and the more radical socialist and Marxist factions. After the Second World War, there was immense optimism about the future of the working class. Unions became increasingly protected by state regulations and the welfare system grew immensely up to the 1960s. Covid may become another touchstone moment that revives class consciousness and political activism as working class people demand a change to the obvious problems exposed by the pandemic.
In contrast, at the top of our economic ladder, the pandemic profiteers have been enjoying the spoils of essential goods monopolies. Small businesses have been forced to shut down or take on unlivable debt while companies like Amazon have become the only convenient and affordable option for all the pandemic needs. A system that was already tipped towards the privileged at the top became completely unsustainable when the economy was directly regulated to benefit the big players. Before the pandemic, workers were already in precarious employment, receiving little benefits, and limited hours. Emerging service jobs are categorized as independent contractors placing all the risk on employees and preventing any form of collective bargaining. The pandemic has only aggravated these glaring problems in our globalist free market system.
Unlike well-paying manufacturing jobs moving overseas or to Mexico, the newly emerging service jobs are grounded locally. Until the inevitable increases in automation, Uber drivers are the product, Amazon couriers are the product, and fast food workers are the product. People in Taiwan can not drive cars in Boston, McDonalds can not serve burgers made in Bangladesh to people in Los Angeles, and Amazon fulfillment centers in India can not deliver products to Toronto without stepping in Canada first. It is clear that the generosity of the upper and middle class does not extend beyond a few dollar tips and a social media post. The working class will remain good little foot soldiers throughout the remainder of this pandemic, but when the dust settles and we hopefully return to normal, the true heroes of the pandemic should reject that normal and demand their well earned Covid reparations.