Covid-19 and global working conditions

How has the coronavirus influenced work globally – from India, via Romania, to Germany and other countries?

By June 2021, the world of work had changed because of the Coronavirus pandemic. We have seen about 180 million Coronavirus cases and almost four million deaths. The Coronavirus pandemic has not only caused death and misery for countless people around the world, it has also changed the way we work.

An early picture of the Coronavirus painted by four-year-old Miquel from Brazil can show the virus. Despite his beautiful picture, the Coronavirus pandemic and its impact on work tells a rather grim tale for many workers around the world. For others it simply meant that virtually all communication has switched to online transmissions – often via Skype and Zoom and often on the kitchen table or in the bedroom. 

In any case, the Coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally disrupted the world of work. In the second quarter of 2020, more than three hundred million jobs were lost. Overall, two main themes have emerged: an acceleration of global inequalities and an intensifying infringement on democratic principles and parliamentarianism by right-wing populists.

In India – “the world’s greatest democracy”, as some politicians like to claim, the lockdown meant the closure of trains, thus ending people’s daily trips to work. It also indicates that people lost their jobs and income. Others were reduced to begging, which is so humiliating, as one worker said.

This occurred predominantly in India’s huge informal sector of 450 million workers. Overall, this sector constitutes almost 93% – the vast majority – of India’s working population. It also meant that the pandemic came in the wake of the highest unemployment in four decades rendering finding a job next to impossible. On top of that, it was reported that 100 million workers have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile in Romania, the grimness of Stalinism seems to have been replaced by the bleakness and hopelessness of capitalism. In Romania, capitalism survives on people’s capacity and willingness to fall back on their kinship support structures. One worker, Denisa, said I haven’t worked on a contract since 2015 meaning she only had informal (legally not binding) short-term work. She continued I paid retirement benefits for two or three months, I think, and I don’t have health insurance – a distinct possibility in post-socialist Romania and not a good prospect in times of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Reports from Germany’s informal workers paint a similar picture as Germany has closed its borders during the Coronavirus lockdown. This made Germans aware that its food production almost exclusively relied on migrant workers. Yet Germany’s right-wing tabloid press abused these same workers by calling them a threat to public health. 

The abhorrent situation of Germany’s migrant workers became most evident in Germany’s Pig Belt – the Schweinegürtel – where workers from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria were deliberately kept in filthy and semi-dilapidated shared flats. Coronavirus infections spread quickly in today’s Dark Satanic Mills in the self-appointed advanced country of Germany.

Meanwhile, Germany’s aspiring Merkel-replacement, Armin Laschet, announced we do what we can in order to prevent the infection from spreading to the population. Migrant workers were obviously not perceived to be part of “the population”. Germany’s slaves were never part of the Volksgemeinschaft – a mind-set that seems to continue among many conservative politicians. 

Many of these food workers are part of Germany’s low-wage precariat. Yet Germany’s former chancellor, the social-democrat Gerhard Schröder, once proudly announced, we built up one of the best low-wage sectors in all of Europe. How can a low-wage sector be good or even “the best”? Isn’t the best not have a low-wage sector at all?

Back in India, the Coronavirus pandemic resulted in the fact that the entire economy, both agricultural and non-agricultural ground to a halt as many informal and urban workers were left with no wages, no food and no shelter. Hunger and a fear of starvation drove millions onto the roads. This highlighted the visibility of migrant workers: the sheer numbers out on the streets and highways. Meanwhile, India’s prime minister Modi has been among those right-wing populists who have belittled the Coronavirus pandemic.

Another right-wing populist also downplaying the Coronavirus threat has been Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. When asked about the rising death rate, Bolsonaro barked So what? and Stop whining. By June 2021, Brazil’s “so what” Corona deaths stood around 500,000 – way above that of let-the-bodies-pile-high Boris Johnson’s UK. 

In both countries, the Coronavirus pandemic started with a single imported case. In Brazil, it was an impoverished sixty-three-year-old black woman contaminated by her employer who had returned from a trip to Italy. In most OECD countries as well as in Brazil, inequality also means that the privileged ones could stay at home while the poor, as Bolsonaro said, would need to work and go out on the streets.

We are mistakenly made to believe that the USA was the key country for African slaves, often forgetting that Brazil was a very significant slavery country as well. Today, the many descendants of those who survived the horrific conditions of slavery work as domestic workers numbering nearly 6.3 million workers: 97% of them are women. 

Some are black women like the aforementioned first victim of the Coronavirus in Brazil. The second group of workers highlighted are online platform workers. During the Coronavirus pandemic, their numbers increased by a whopping 700% during April and March 2020. Yet, the expansion of these online services did not correlate with better working condition and wages for delivery workers: in fact, the opposite. 

Similar evidence is delivered for South Africa where on top of Coronavirus-induced misery, over 230,000 people had been arrested, mostly for issues such as being outdoor without a permit. By April 2020, 77% had run out of money to buy food.

Surviving the Coronavirus pandemic often depends on two groups of people: medical doctors and the roughly 27.9 million nurses that work worldwide. A recent Gallup poll found that nurses are consistently seen as the most trustworthy profession. Yet nurses are chronically underpaid: earning only between €28,000 and €114,00 in OECD countries. 

Globally, the density of nurses ranges from Guatemala with 1.2 nurses per 10,000 people to Cuba at the world’s top with 84.2 nurses per 10,000. This is what socialism can do to you. Meanwhile, the supposedly advanced Europe’s average is 34.1 – not even half that of Cuba.

Worse, neoliberalism and austerity have not only cut funding for hospitals so bitterly needed during the Coronavirus pandemic but have also led to nurses wages being reduced and their workloads increased. Since the advent of neoliberalism (Reagan and Thatcher), in many countries infected by the neoliberal virus the number of hospital beds has declined, for example, in the USA from 889,600 in 1995 to 641,395 in 2010 and in Germany from 665,565 in 1991 to 497,182 in 2017. 

Cutting hospital beds and underfunding and overworking nurses is not a good precursor when entering a global pandemic. Worse, neoliberalism’s ideology of a global free labor market has resulted in the fact that ‘large numbers of nurses are lured from poor countries to the wealthy, so that the health care situation in the poor countries deteriorates even further. Welcome to the world of globalized capitalism. Even ghastlier is the fact that by July 2020, 3,000 nurses had died form Covid-19.

Reducing health care costs – now seen as a cost – not a human need! – has also been the case in Denmark, Norway and Sweden where the first two differed strongly in their response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Sweden appeared to have initially followed a Donald Trump-like it will go away approach – something Trump repeated a whopping 40-times. 

Just like in Trump’s USA and BoJo’s UK, the outcome was that Sweden ended up with dramatically higher death figures than Denmark and Norway. The same can be said about Japan; that even though Japan’s conservatives have been hollowing out its public organizations responsible for public hygiene, health and welfare for the past thirty years, Japan’s Coronavirus death rate was at 14,000 by early June 2020.

The story of the above-named right-wing populists continues in post-Brexit UK where Boris Johnson’s government was the last country in Western Europe that implemented a country-wide school closure. Meanwhile, children from the poorest fifth of homes are spending an average of 1.3 hours per had less on remote learning than children in the highest-income families. The UK is a country where 4.3 million children are living in poverty – up 200,000 from the previous year and up 500,000 over the past five years.

A different kind of poverty exists in one of the world’s poorest regions, the Sahel where the Coronavirus pandemic now threatens to destroy all the progress made to increase economic opportunities for women. According to one report, some 300 girls now work producing masks earning circa 0.5 US dollar per piece. 

A different impact is reported from North Carolina (USA) where the Coronavirus pandemic exasperated the existing strains on everyday work relations in the food processing industry and where 2,000 poultry workers had contracted Covid-19 by the end of May 2020.

The Coronavirus pandemic had quite a positive impact on sex work in Argentina where the association of prostitute women of Argentina issued demands including the social recognition of their work as productive and necessary for the economic life of the country. 

Elsewhere, at the upper level of the labor hierarchy is the case of El Al pilots in Israel where the El Al pilots union created a special support fund to which those who were able to work during the crisis contributed.

The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on working lives was also positive in Germany’s home offices where telework is much more a commonplace today than ever before. This is because of four factors: 

  1. substantial investments in new digitalized infrastructures;
  2. a lively public debate on home office work;
  3. workers, trade unions and management have come to see telework in a more positive light; and
  4. Germany’s new home office law. 

The new law gives German workers the right to practice telework. Overall, managers have discovered that remote working has actually increased productivity which might lead to a post-Corona fight over forcing workers back into offices – a move that would sustain managerial power – or allowing workers to use home office for higher productivity. 

In any case, the Coronavirus pandemic has shown that after forty years of the neoliberal mantra of privatization, personal liberty and the wisdom of the market when weakened institutions met the crisis, human society and working arrangements did not do that well. The Coronavirus pandemic ravaged our societies, killed millions of people (some are unnecessarily as the former advisor to Boris Johnson now admits) forced workers into lockdown, led to massive job losses and accelerated global poverty.

During the same 40 years, many governments have staunchly followed a catechism-like belief-system of neoliberalism consisting of roughly four elements. The Coronavirus has destroyed all four: 

1. The Free Market:

The first belief is that the free market seen as the panacea for almost all social issues. Let the free market deal with the Coronavirus and millions more will die needlessly. 

2. Deregulation – Eliminate Red Tape:

The second belief-system is deregulation – ending red tape! What we need against Corona is the exact opposite. We need regulation on social distancing, on OHS, on industrial relations, etc. The Corona pandemic demands more regulation, not less. Take regulation away, chaos reigns and many more will die.

3. The Nanny State is the Problem:

Thirdly, neoliberalism advocates less state – no nanny state! Take the state’s ultimate regulating force, the police, away and Coronavirus-infected people will try to cross borders until the police stop them. Society in crisis depends on functioning administrative structures, the police, the operational state and state-run hospitals, doctors and nurses ready to serve everyone – not just the rich. 

3. Privatization

Finally, there is privatization. Neoliberals like to privatize health. Yet healthcare for the rich is not working just as vaccinating only the rich would work. The Coronavirus has comprehensively destroyed the neoliberal belief-system. 

In the end, the Coronavirus pandemic appears to have widened global inequalities not just between the so-called rich and the so-called developing world but also within countries and even within the working class. It has also impacted negatively on global working conditions. The upper levels of the working class – white collar office workers – have been able to move into home offices often leaving the unhealthy and dreaded open-plan office behind. 

Meanwhile the lower levels of the working class, the precariat and workers in the informal sector have been hit hard – very hard indeed. In other words, capitalism under the conditions of the Coronavirus pandemic has made working life for many that much worse predominantly for the workers of the Global South.

This article was originally published at Zcomm on 16 June 2021.

The Barricade is an independent platform, which is supported financially by its readers. If you have enjoyed reading this article, support The Barricade’s existence! See how you can help – here! Also, you can subscribe to our Patreon page.

The Barricade also has a booming Telegram channela Twitter account and a YouTube channel, where all the podcasts are hosted. It can also be followed in RumbleSpotifySoundCloud and Instagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *