The coronavirus has not only attacked vulnerable individuals—it has highlighted how Europe’s atrophying social ties leave a growing precariat exposed.
The world-renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz has rightly called our attention to the dramatic threats the coronavirus poses to everyone’s health and to the economy and society at large. He urges us to appreciate once more the important role of government, public policy and public values, as the antidote to what Ulrich Beck long ago defined as ‘risk society’—the society of side-effects.
From a different perspective, but similar approach, the eloquent feminist social scientist Nancy Fraser highlights in her 2017 book Social Reproduction Theory how creating and maintaining social bonds is essential to guaranteeing ‘sustainability’ in society. Fraser’s focus is on caring, which provides ties between generations, as well as within and across communities. But this is threatened, she argues, by the withdrawal of public support under neoliberal, financialised capitalism.
The result of this attenuation of social bonds is for us a ‘crisis society’—a systemic condensation of the financial, political, ecological, social and health challenges we have been (and are) experiencing nowadays, which are strongly intertwined.
The Covid-19 crisis magnifies the distortions imposed by neoliberal ideology on the socio-economic system. To the fore are the increasingly precarious working conditions of some social groups in the labour market.
Precarious workers are most at risk from the pandemic, because they lack social and human rights (including to collective bargaining and participation) while enjoying little or no social protection (including adequate unemployment and sickness benefits). This is the case for those who cannot work (the unemployed) and those who do but do not have guaranteed work or hours (on-call and zero-hours contracts)—as well as all the low-paid, who are mostly migrants, women and youth segregated in specific sectors of the economy, such as cleaning, hospitality and retail.
A large proportion of the European workforce already works under employment arrangements usually referred to as non-standard, the ‘standard’ being a good, old-fashioned, full-time, open-ended employee contract. This category includes dependent self-employed, temporary agency workers, bogus self-employed and digital platform workers, with all the potential overlaps among them.
First to succumb
Take self-employed workers. They are first to succumb to a general slow-down of the productive system, as we can gather from freelancers’ ‘social media’ communities and professional associations—for instance, a survey run by ACTA in Italy after the coronavirus crisis erupted.
The self-employed represent one of the most vulnerable groups in this emergency: their income being based on a client-provider relationship (as opposed to an employer-employee connection), if the client withdraws his order the worker loses his or her pay. And by virtue of this independent status, he or she is required to shoulder the responsibility for the inconvenience.
While in the past independent workers were found mostly in high-class occupations—lawyers, private doctors, architects—today this category is a lot larger and more varied, with many struggling to make ends meet. Quite consistently across Europe, government has incentivised the shift to self-employment since the 2008 financial crisis; we may now be seeing a boomerang effect.
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Some European countries, such as Belgium and Italy, are discussing measures aimed at supporting independent workers. These would be included in more encompassing economic aid plans, to soften the harsh impact lockdown imperatives are expected to have on national economic systems.
Digital platform workers—often described in a quite cynical way as ‘the future of work’—comprise a sub-group of the self-employed. With bars, restaurants and catering services closing their doors as a consequence of the containment measures, many of these are turning to home delivery through food-delivery platforms, to keep their businesses going.
Yet no one seems to realise that the pizza is not then delivered by a robot but by an individual who is put in danger of catching the disease and becoming a vector of its spread—for just a few euros a time and with (usually) no health insurance provided by the platform. In Italy, where a lockdown was first implemented, riders have protested to raise awareness of their working conditions.
Given the focus on health professions in the emergency, it is worth noting that healthcare and social assistance have been at the forefront of the consistent expansion of the self-employed workforce across the European Union, the sector showing an average growth of 27.8 per cent in the decade to 2017. Many of those we are calling ‘heroes’, for their tireless contribution in saving lives threatened by Covid-19, may be working with very little social protection, no working-hours limit and generally fewer entitlements than a normal employee would have.
The work of the future
Painted in this way, ‘the future of work’ is not a sustainable one. To save society from the crisis we experience nowadays, attempting solutions to the several distortions which the coronavirus has highlighted, we need to rethink how we live and work. Policy-makers and non-governmental organisations need to focus squarely on the key public goods we need to produce and the values we need to enshrine, and frame around those the work of the future.
This is by no means straightforward, since no single actor is ultimately responsible. Rather, defining the conditions and principles of a sustainable society requires an acute appreciation of democratic governance, to which all stakeholders—particularly national governments and European institutions—should contribute to creating.
Valeria Pulignano is professor of sociology in the Centre for Sociological Research at KU Leuven (Belgium), where Claudia Marà is a PhD student within the framework of the ERC-funded REsPecTMe project.