Workers Are on the Frontline of a Second Wave of COVID-19

While public-health guidance tells citizens to work from home, for millions of low-wage workers, this has never been a realistic option. As Europe’s governments ease the lockdown, it’s working-class people who are on the firing line of a second wave of infections.

Workers are the ones who will bear the brunt of a second wave of COVID-19. tvdflickr / Flickr

In March and April after the first outbreak in China, the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic was Europe. From the very first days of COVID-19’s spread, a flurry of official statements spoke of a disease that was affecting all populations equally, that is, without social distinction. Epidemiologists stressed that it was most dangerous, by far for the elderly and a little more so for men than women, rarely without venturing beyond these biological criteria.

Yet the spread of the virus, and to an even greater extent its effects, are based on a logic of social differentiation. COVID-19 arrived in Europe via carriers like executives of large domestic firms, military personnel, and tourists traveling by plane, and — as suggested by the first statistical assessments —  it seems to have subsequently affected primarily working-class populations in several European countries.

In the United Kingdom, a study of 2,494 deaths by the Office for National Statistics shows that the people who are most at risk are workers with the lowest levels of qualification, especially men, who have remained in direct contact with work colleagues or the public. In France, trends suggest that the working classes in the Paris region are the most severely affected. Indeed, mortality is higher in départements such as Seine-Saint-Denis to the north of Paris, where there is a large working-class population, and in particular an urban proletariat of immigrant origin. These areas are also home to the most precarious living conditions such as overcrowded housing, high-income inequalities, difficulties in access to healthcare, and poorly-equipped public health services.

These initial statistical summaries remind us that counting deaths by country is not necessarily the most appropriate way to understand the social mechanisms at work in the spread of the disease. If at some point a study carries out an assessment of the victims of COVID-19 in Europe in relation to their social position, it’s a safe bet that it will reveal not just a mass pandemic but a genuine “class pandemic,” with correlations to the type of work people do and the conditions in which they live.

However, at present there is little data or research documenting the existence of a European social space — one of the sort proposed by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (i.e., constructed as a combination of positions defined by the place people occupy in the distribution of economic, cultural and symbolic capital). On the basis of several major European surveys, our book Social Class in Europe (Verso, 2020) reports on the proximity or distance between social classes on a European scale according to different types of capital, and then links this to inequalities between national contexts.

At a time when barriers are being set up across European countries, it is worth remembering that 48 percent of Europeans “work in contact with the public,” which mainly consists of middle- and working-class women such as personal care employees, sales employees, nurses, teachers, receptionists, shopkeepers, or home support workers.

The idea of a Europe of nations also obscures the way in which Europe is divided between different social classes. Broadly speaking, one can contrast a Southern and Eastern Europe where working-class populations are proportionally much higher than the European average, with a Northern and Western Europe that has been able to take advantage of capitalist globalization, and where the middle and upper classes are more numerous. This cartography is the product of a social history of inequality faced with the transformations of capitalism that have taken place since the 1990s.

Alongside the differentiation of social structures, there has been an intensification of competition between wage earners. As a result, the working classes all over the continent have found themselves on the defensive: on the one hand, those in Eastern and Southern countries are forced to accept low wages or even to emigrate to find work; and on the other, those in the North and West are faced with relocation and must accept wage moderation and flexibility in order to hold onto any remaining jobs.

This explains the extent of the social shock the continent has undergone, in the context of an expanding European Union that has no social convergence criteria. We can imagine that social convergence criteria replaces those of the Stability and Growth Pact adopted following the Maastricht Treaty agreements. This could involve setting a 3 percent unemployment target; and any country surpassing this limit would be sanctioned by fines, used to support laid-off workers. Instead, in the absence of such binding measures, the European working classes were the social group that paid the heaviest price for the 2008 crisis, while, paradoxically, the strongest protests against the deterioration of working conditions were made by young graduates facing an uncertain professional future and the austerity-hit middle classes. These varied reactions have shown the increasing difficulty, for the victims of the crisis, to recognize themselves in terms of class identities and to put these same identities at the center of social movements.

Unemployment, Underemployment

Rising unemployment in Europe is often presented as a scourge affecting populations as a whole. Yet the effects of the crisis, globalization, or the spread of new technologies do not strike the world of work indiscriminately: the working classes are on the frontlines of this destabilization of the labor market, which makes them more vulnerable than any other social group. Unemployment does not affect Europeans at random: it consistently strikes at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In 2011, three years after the start of the economic crisis in Europe, unemployment among people over twenty-five was on average 5 percent, with considerable inequalities between social classes: it affected over 11 percent of the working class compared with under 3 percent of the upper class. While unemployment only hit 3 percent of managers, it affected 11 percent of high-skilled workers and 14 percent of low-skilled workers, according to available data.

The exposure of the working class to unemployment is combined with a more fragile status and a higher rate of part-time work than is found among other wage earners. But while the notion of job insecurity is often used in France, Spain, or Italy to describe a situation of uncertainty and instability for the worker, this is not the case in the United Kingdom, where all employment contracts are considered equivalent in terms of the protections they offer. The mosaic of regulations shows that a Europe of labor rights is almost non-existent and makes it almost impossible to compare categories of employment status between countries. In European statistics, a distinction is often made between “permanent contracts” and “temporary contracts.” This reductive dichotomy actually falls far too short of grasping reality and the concrete situations of precarity. Nevertheless, even with this rudimentary indicator, we can see the reality of social inequalities: in 2014, approximately 14 percent of the salaried working classes were working under temporary contracts, while this was the case for less than 9 percent of the upper and middle classes. Here again, there is a particularly sharp contrast between low-skilled workers (17 percent on temporary contracts) — especially laborers and agricultural workers — and managers (3 percent). In most European countries these unstable jobs are also the lowest paid, irrespective of age, qualification, or sector — and women are disproportionately represented in them.

Among employed women, this precarity most often takes the form of part-time work. At the beginning of the 2010s, European women were the main victims of this sort of instability, whether under the guise of time arrangements or flexibility. At first glance, this gendered inequality seems to be general: part-time work is almost as common among the working class as it is among the middle class, even though more women than men are engaged in it. But this resemblance is only superficial. Part-time work is twice as likely to be imposed unwillingly among the working classes as it is among the middle classes, and particularly affects low-skilled female workers. For these women, part-time work often prevents them from having a decent standard of living and forces them to find other sources of income. The least-skilled occupations are the most affected: cleaners, childcare workers, home support workers, and domestic workers are all occupations now counted under the category of “personal and household services.”

Painful and Dangerous Jobs

Members of the European working class are also the most exposed to the hardships and risks associated with work. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, the technological advances of recent decades have not put an end to the constraints of low-skilled or unskilled work. The vast majority of workers in the European working class is occupied with “repetitive hand and arm movements” (20 percentage points higher than for middle-class workers).

Added to this is the practice of working in “painful or tiring positions,” which are much more rarely found in other professions. The differences in physical hardship are significant for jobs that involve frequently carrying heavy loads, regular exposure to noise or to smoke and dust, or those that require long periods of standing up. While manual workers are the most likely to be affected, the self-employed may still be required to transport heavy loads and are more exposed to dust, smoke, and noise.

Working-class women seem to be less affected by certain forms of hardship associated with industrial work. For example, they are less often exposed to smoke or dust. However, they still experience other forms of physical hardship, such as moving heavy loads. Housekeepers, care workers, and those working in childcare are usually obliged to stand for almost the entirety of their working time. Some seven in ten European working-class women say that their work never or hardly ever involves sitting down; and this is the case for only one-fifth of European women from the middle or upper classes.

Cultural Capital

Beyond national differences, the importance of one’s class position can also be seen in terms of cultural capital. For, the digital divide is based as much on the difficulties of accessing a computer or the Internet as it is on individuals’ unequal mastery of IT skills. More than two-thirds of Europeans say they have a good command of new information and communication technologies (those occupations related to the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology [NICTs]), including the use of word processing and spreadsheet software; the ability to copy, save, or compress files; connect a peripheral device; and change software settings. The proportion is somewhat lower for Internet use, which refers to the use of search engines, sending e-mails, downloading and sharing files, posting messages on sites or forums, etc. But this data conceals major inequalities. Whereas slightly less than half of the working class has a good command of new technologies, this is the case for more than four-fifths of the middle class and more than nine-tenths of the upper class. Similarly, just under half of the working class is able to use the internet correctly, compared with three-quarters of the middle class and more than four-fifths of the upper class. Those who struggle most with new technologies and the internet are farmers, housekeepers, agricultural workers, laborers, and skilled workers in crafts, food, and construction.

In contrast, senior managers and most intellectual and scientific professions are highly skilled in NICTs and the Internet. With schools setting coursework online during the coronavirus lockdown, this digital divide has been particularly obvious between working-class and upper-class families. The upper class also stand out in terms of cultural visits and their attendance at live performances. Whereas one-third of the members of the European working class say they have attended at least one performance in the last year, this is the case for 69 percent of members of the upper class. The figures for regular or occasional attendance at cultural sites show even greater inequalities. Three-quarters of the upper class visited at least one cultural site in the year preceding the survey, compared with six in ten members of the middle class, and one in three members of the working class.

Beyond the Boundaries

Although they show great diversity from the point of view of their economic resources, the European working class nevertheless shares several common characteristics: the same subordination at work, the same forms of cultural domination, and the same forms of political exclusion. Throughout Europe, at the level of both national and European parliaments, they are absent from positions of political representation (though there is a tiny proportion of workers among MPs).

However, in many respects, workers’ career experiences appear disparate and fragmented across the continent. This heterogeneity is obviously not the only obstacle to the constitution of a European social movement that would surpass national borders. But it must be acknowledged that the configuration of class at this level complicates the emergence of such movements. The features shared by the working class, particularly in terms of employment and working conditions, have so far found no representation on the political scene: this question remains absent from the institutions of the European Union, which make a point of presenting themselves as far removed from national party/political “passions”… while at the same time reinforce relations of domination between countries and between social classes on a continental scale. But, perhaps more surprisingly, this question has received very little attention from left-wing parties and is not at the heart of European trade unions’ activity.

The current health crisis, together with the social crisis linked to the lockdown of the European economy, should be an opportunity for the return of a political and trade-union European left. The challenge is to build a program centered around the issue of protecting the working class and combating social inequalities. Even more so than in 2008, inequalities between classes are proving to be substantial and need to be addressed on a continental scale: while the upper class has been able to work remotely and rely on their savings, a large part of the working class is employed in sectors that are compelled to continue working at the risk of their health and even their lives. In other sectors that have come to a standstill, the future looks set for a wave of layoffs, massive unemployment, and considerable loss of income. Some of the working class in the poorest European countries are already experiencing food deprivation on a daily basis: three years after the 2008 crisis, 40 percent of the Bulgarian working classes and a third of the Hungarian working classes declared that they could not afford to eat properly. The queues at food banks show that extreme poverty now directly threatens entire sections of the working class across the continent, including in Western countries.

However, it is workers in vital sectors (agro-food, shops selling basic necessities, hospitals, cleaning and waste disposal, deliveries, logistics, transport) and employees in the public health and education sectors who have kept Europe’s locked-down societies alive. Have these social groups become aware of their economic and political power in Europe? Time will tell, but there is a project on the horizon for the European left: to use this crisis to crystallize a new political alliance between the working class and the middle class in the public sector.

The first responses of the European Union are far removed from these concerns: even if the European Central Bank has temporarily suspended the budgetary restraints imposed on EU countries over the last thirty years, most of the measures taken are primarily aimed at protecting the financial markets. Worse, they have lacked generosity toward the Southern countries (Spain, Italy) hardest hit by the epidemic — countries at risk of sinking under the weight of their public debt, much like Greece after 2008.

The European Commission’s decision not to classify COVID-19 in the category of the most dangerous occupational diseases — the categorization that places the greatest responsibility on employers to protect employees — also indicates that a shift in the European Union toward greater worker protection is probably not on the agenda. This risks fueling workers’ resentment toward the EU and aiding a further rise of far-right forces.

The shape of the world that will emerge from this crisis is not set in stone. The future will depend on the balance of trade-union and political forces at the European level. Fighting to shift that balance is the most urgent task we face today.