In a Pandemic, We’re More Precarious Than Ever

Precarity has been rising for decades but now, in a pandemic, job insecurity meets physical vulnerability in new and terrifying ways.

A bus driver wears mandatory face covering in an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus at the Sarbanes Transit Center April 16, 2020 in Silver Spring, Maryland. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

The tidal wave of panic at the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred massive emergency steps by states to control their populations’ movements and bolster wrecked economies. Now political analysts are squinting to spy, through the glare of crisis, the longer-term political ramifications of these official responses, previously seen only in wartimes.

It didn’t take long for the pandemic to exacerbate existing inequalities: while the army of “knowledge workers” can safely work from home, many are either continuing to go to work in unsafe conditions, or have already lost their jobs as a result of rapidly applied social-distancing measures.

As front-line workers are dying from the virus, and the ranks of the unemployed are swelling by the millions, precarity is rising everywhere. Yet even as societies rush (and must be pushed) to respond to this abrupt rise in precarity, we should also ponder what the pandemic exposes about how deeply and broadly precarity already had become ingrained in our lives, before this crisis hit.

Precarity on the Rise

Precarious conditions have arisen from the painful convergence of austerity-driven cuts in state social supports across Europe and North America with the rise of part-time, contingent, and self-employed jobbing as the new normal in our working world. On the level of daily experience, precarity manifests in one especially palpable way: in the chilling normalization of the reality that working now means risking illness and bodily harm to ever greater degrees — virus or no virus. COVID-19 fluorescently illuminates both this physical predicament and its institutional backdrop. The pandemic also reveals how this situation envelops workers throughout society, even as some suffer worse fates than others.

In the West, the fundamental problem with our economies for decades has not only been rising inequality, which is as commonly known as it is obscene. It is also the intensifying of precarity across all occupations and sectors, at nearly every rung of the class ladder. Four decades of “structural adjustment policies” — reduction of job security and slashing of public spending on essential services, including health care — have not only attacked a precarious class (what economist Guy Standing has called “the precariat”) but a precarious multitude.

These policies were launched in the late twentieth century, allegedly for the sake of ensuring national competitiveness in the global market. After the financial meltdown of 2008, these same structural adjustment policies were further deepened for the sake of financial stabilization. The thinning of the social safety net increased everyone’s reliance on jobs that were getting ever more precarious, and on public services that were becoming gravely underfunded. Such was the infrastructure of precarity capitalism.

It unleashed the logic of fear and hatred that has animated populism and nationalism. And it exacerbated the tendency in profit-driven societies for individuals to view social well-being as a zero-sum game, even when events starkly manifest how widespread precarity’s predicaments really are.

Often people like to reassure themselves that precarious conditions only affect a minority of people — Deliveroo workers in London, for example, or migrant domestic workers in Seattle — but precarity spreads risks throughout society as a whole.

We can see this often ignored but widely shared exposure to social risk laid bare by COVID-19, when we consider the connections between precarity and health. The rush to protect people from viral contamination has dramatically altered how we view the workplace. Until yesterday valued as the locus of productive activity and self-fulfillment, it is now suddenly feared as a zone fraught with health hazards.

But precarity’s advances have been ratcheting up the physical dangers of simply going to work for decades, for all sorts of workers. Whether you deliver packages for Amazon, stock Amazon’s warehouses, or run Amazon management teams, you are at much higher risk of occupational safety and health problems in today’s precarious economy than in years past. Across the labor market, work has become lethally stressful and physically risky as algorithms govern work-processes, jobs become temporary, and threadbare worker-safety agencies find workplace monitoring impossible.

We’ve been trained to accept precarity as a natural feature of the economy, but it is no more “natural” than COVID-19 in the biosphere. Both stem from complex social and political processes that human beings have the ability to change. One takeaway from this pandemic should be a new resolve to make work sites safer and healthier for all of us. This means reinvesting in the social protections that a democratic welfare state used to provide. It also means resisting the pressures of globally integrated capitalism, especially those from the finance industry that have fostered what economist David Weil calls “the fissured workplace,” where leading companies no longer directly employ most people who make their products and thus bear little or no responsibility for these workers’ occupational safety and health.

Working people the world over should take care that these colossal deployments of state powers to restore health and security do not lead to further institutionalizations of economic precarity — or to clipping democracy’s wings. We should be left neither to the mercy of autocrats — even benevolent ones — nor to the discretionary good will of politicians and businessmen, no matter how generous they mean to be.

And the war against the virus must not yield another layer of institutions that shield investors from capital risk while exposing working people to ever more fearful bodily risk — for instance, through income replacement payment schemes that leave self-employed persons, workers whose hours are reduced and people working on zero hour contracts out in the cold.

Surges of solidarity and conviviality have sprung forth in these difficult days, as neighbors sing together from balconies in Italy, applaud medical workers from their windows in Paris and Brussels, and marvel as even conservative-led governments issue huge payments to shore up some workers’ income-depleted bank accounts. Now, we need to channel those currents of fellow feeling into a broad-scale anti-precarity politics, guided by the awareness we have gained of the vital work-environmental and ecological dimensions of human health.

The titanic social mobilization to defeat COVID-19 could forge real solidarity throughout our entire precaritized society, rather than leading us into the trap of the illusionary safety that discretionary rule provides. This requires building a political economy of trust: making the satisfaction of human needs rather than the stewardship of capital our social priority. This means making long-term investments in essential social services and demanding democratic accountability from central governments.

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Paul Apostolidis is the author of The Fight for Time: Migrant Day Laborers and the Politics of Precarity (Oxford University Press, 2019). He is associate professorial lecturer in the government department at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Albena Azmanova is the author of Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia (Columbia University Press, 2020). She is associate professor of politics at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies.

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