At the height of the pandemic workers in critical occupations enjoyed nightly public applause. Now they need longer-term, concrete appreciation.
The coronavirus pandemic has recalibrated our definition of who and what are critical to the economy and society. Whereas the banking sector was deemed ‘systemically’ significant in the economic crisis following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, entirely different occupations and sectors have come to the fore. Today, staff in retail, logistics or care are considered critical for society, having fulfilled the public’s basic needs through the nadir of the crisis.
Those critical occupations share two commonalities. First, they are frontline service roles, characterised by direct contact with customers, patients or related groups. According to the European Working Conditions Survey (2015), about 41 per cent of employees in Europe perform interactive service work. Secondly, workers in critical occupations often suffer from comparatively bad working conditions (despite some across- and within-sector differences). Wages tend to be low, atypical forms of employment are widespread and long-term career perspectives are frequently scarce.
Where does the disadvantage of workers in systemically relevant sectors and occupations come from? In the case of Germany, there are three sources: the regulatory system, the socio-demographic characteristics of the workforce and the intrinsic nature of the work.
Race to the bottom
The main sectors in which critical occupations can be found have generally suffered from relatively weak sector-wide regulation. In retail and logistics, individual employers have increasingly opted out of collective-bargaining, challenging trade unions and the authority of collective agreements. A race to the bottom has replaced a level playing-field, as accommodating employers feel the need to downgrade their standards to remain competitive. This is particularly evident in retail, where in Germany only 20 per cent of companies still accept collective agreements.
The patchwork of regulations in the systemically relevant sectors and jobs is reflected in working conditions. Part-time and non-standard employment are widespread: ‘mini-jobs’ (as they are called in Germany) across the board, with also agency and student work in retail and logistics, and voluntary work in care. In combination with the relatively low wages in these sectors, this may lead to in-work poverty and old-age-poverty in the long run.
In the context of the pandemic, working conditions may have become even more challenging, for instance in terms of working time and work intensity. Workers and unions alike are challenged by this.
Workforce characteristics—interlinked with the regulatory system—are another source of disadvantage. Staff performing systemically relevant work largely comprise women, (second-generation) migrants and/or young people, who often suffer from precarious working conditions. The disproportionately high exposure of this diverse workforce to the pandemic could reinforce inequalities between socio-demographic groups.
Workers in critical occupations and sectors thus need voice and strong representation to improve their conditions. Yet they do not belong to the traditional membership base of trade unions, for which the service sector has generally been very challenging terrain.
Finally, it is in the nature of frontline or interactive work that exposure to health-and-safety risks is high amid a pandemic, because of the associated social interactions. Interactive service workers are more exposed to contagion, as social-distancing rules cannot always be followed—care staff have to wash patients and in retail some customers’ behaviour renders distancing difficult. Moreover, the pandemic has increased emotional demands—obviously in care but again also in retail with problematic customers.
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Applause and appreciation
In Germany, as in many other countries, workers in critical occupations were applauded every evening in the peak of the crisis. Yet, appreciation should be shown in other ways, too, to eliminate or at least reduce the triple disadvantage faced by workers.
Ways of strengthening regulation in particular have been discussed in recent months, including universal sectoral collective agreements, higher minimum wages or a bonus for care staff. These could contribute to raising wages, yet appreciation is not only about wages: job evaluations and risk assessments of critical work need also to be reviewed.
Such recalibration should fully incorporate the interactive nature of the work, which brings with it particular demands and risks. To date, job evaluations and risk assessments have however barely considered social interactions at work as ‘real work’—even though customer contact inherently presents workers with challenges, whether because of the lability, and even volatility, of social interactions or the necessity to perform emotional labour.
Amid the pandemic, these challenges have intensified: hygiene rules cannot always be followed; emotional demands have increased. Incorporating these challenges and risks into job evaluations would be a sustainable way of showing appreciation to workers in systemically relevant occupations and sectors and concretely contributing to improving their working conditions.
Nadja Dörflinger is a senior social scientist in the 'Changing World of Work' research group at the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA), Germany, interested in employment relations, labour markets and trade unions in a comparative European perspective.