The pandemic as a mirror of labour. Is it the end of work as we know it?


The existing capitalist model has normalised paid labour as a basic and self-evident social mechanism for the distribution of wealth, time and value in human societies. Having significantly affected our way and place of work, the current conditions, as shaped by the pandemic, have opened the path to social transformations. Although alarming, such changes may actually prove promising. The future is open. 

The Levee Studios, Albany, United States

The pandemic has functioned as a peculiar mirror that reflected, reversed or magnified the disproportions of “work” as a social institution. Work was intensified for millions of people in terms of working hours, rhythm, stress and risk, while millions of employment contracts were suspended or terminated, thus forcing people to stay at home. In the USA, 38 million people applied for unemployment benefits; the figure is shocking. Within the first fortnight of March, 41.000 redundancies were recorded in Greece, while about 50% of employees were forced to reduce their normal working hours.

The most adrversely affected by this situation were people working in positions often regarded as degraded or menial before the pandemic outbreak; thousands of workers - mostly men - employed to load trucks, deliver packages or collect garbage; thousands of workers - mostly women - employed to clean hospitals, serve supermarket customers or attend to nursing home residents. In this case, the pandemic mirror has brought to light and reversed the distorted social value attributed to jobs that sustain and reproduce life.   

Naturally, the unequal distribution of work time, volume and value translates into unequal incomes and unequal access to means of subsistence. However, this situation is far from “natural”.

The existing capitalist model has normalised paid labour as a basic and self-evident social mechanism for the distribution of wealth, time and value in human societies. Having significantly affected our way and place of work, the current conditions, as shaped by the pandemic, have opened the path to social transformations. Although alarming, such changes may actually prove promising. The future is open. 

Insecurity – the (not so) new normal

The pandemic has undoubtedly helped us recognise the value of “front-line workers”. At the same time, it has triggered a series of unprecedented forms and conditions of work. Teleworking and job rotation models were added to the existing forms of flexible and/or unstable work, such as part-time work and flexible working hours. All these forms of work differ considerably from the “steady job” model we knew (and pursued) until now. Although positive traits can be attributed to some of them (for example, reduced commuting time), many others fall under a working reality described as “precarious” by the International Labour Office:

“In the most general sense, precarious work is a means for employers to shift risks and responsibilities on to workers. It is work performed in the formal and informal economy and is characterized by variable levels and degrees of objective (legal status) and subjective (feeling) characteristics of uncertainty and insecurity.”

Although precarious work existed before the pandemic outbreak, it is now taking new forms and dimensions. This reshaping is so extensive that precarious work can now be considered as a basic - not temporary - form of work. This pandemic is expected to cause insecurity to people previously having stable jobs, while leading precarious workers to poverty.    

More than half of the global workforce have no insurance and/or work under insecure and informal employment conditions. It is estimated that 1.6 billion people are directly affected by the measures taken against Covid-19 and face the danger of impending pauperisation. The positive narratives that describe such “new forms of flexible work” as another “opportunity in crisis time” tend to conceal certain intentions and strategies that were established long ago and go beyond the Greek reality. The normalisation of work insecurity has been supported by the information economy and expanded through processes driven by older crises.

Labour, facts and Platform Capitalism

Platform capitalism today lives through millions of meters of optic fibres, submarine cables and other infrastructures established in the ’90s, that now compose the central nervous system of globalization and internet. Although many people’s expectations for either a utopian peer to peer communication and equal knowledge sharing, or continuous financial profit in the new digital world, were both disproved by the dot-com crisis in late ’90s (the Greek version of stock market bubble), the foundation had already been laid and was about to gain new value following the upcoming crisis of capitalism; i.e. the financial crisis in 2008[1].

After a short break of working stability from the ’50s to ’70s (still not for everyone), precarious work - within an unsettling economic and political framework that favoured no fundamental reforms - has now returned with the pretext of flexibility and self-evolution. Apart from some executives, investors and a few specialised professionals, the rest have flocked together at the base of the social pyramid, competing each other within an increasingly tighter space; a representative example of the hourglass model. Instead of being invested in the development of socially and environmentally sustainable technologies, profits lie stagnant in tax heaven harbours. It is not a coincidence therefore that, some European governments have been deliberately refusing to offer bailouts to companies linked to offshore entities outside Europe.

The new digital era is led mainly by digital platform companies, especially Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google. Instead of investing in production increase by means of work automatization (despite narratives suggesting otherwise), platform capitalism is investing in a new product: data. As compared to other types of products and services, digital data production is cheap and applicable in the daily use of smartphones and other “smart” devices. Rather intentionally, technology companies in cooperation with governments suggest new digital platforms and phone apps, for online learning to medical diagnosis, as a means to address the current health crisis. Behind all such well-designed interfaces, there is an army of invisible employees who make up for the deficiencies of semi- or pseudo-automatization. Disproving older forecasts for the reduction of warehouse employees - a sector in the front line of automatization -, the related job positions in the USA have increased by 83%. Many of these jobs, however, are far from being “good” jobs; they are even far from being humane. Work is assigned, controlled, measured and assessed by digital means, rendering obsolete the - unequal yet human - interaction between employees and supervisors. As a result, people often come close to physical and mental exhaustion. A characteristic example is the case of Teleperformance in Moschato, Athens,, where dozens of employees work in content management on behalf of Facebook, and are daily exposed to unpleasant images they are not allowed to communicate.

As platform capitalism is in quest of cheap and expandable workforce (a fact partially due to the demands of Chinese workers, whose remuneration is now reaching the wage levels of Greece), this form of work is no longer a dystopian future scenario. As combined with the deregulated labour market and boosted by Covid-19, precarious work has come to stay. And we’ll have to make room for this arrival; at our homes.

Work for and from home

It seems that even though “stay at home” is fading away, “work at home” is being established. Faceboοk, that inescapably sets the pace for labour market in technology, has already announced the intention to permanently embrace remote work. Such a geographical shift triggers, in its turn, at least three socio-political shifts.

To begin with, the concept of “work” is entering a home that has been long accommodating an unrecognised form of work. From the “Wages for housework” campaign in 1975 to the claim for a “care income” amidst the pandemic in 2020, the request for recognition and fair remuneration of reproductive labour is still neglected in dominant work discourse. Women and girls all around the world keep doing most of the work it takes to keep us all clean, fed, dressed and united - in other words, alive. In financial terms, the annual cost of this unpaid work is estimated to 10.8 million - i.e. three times the size of the technology industry.

The pandemic has deepened and brought to light the “care crisis”; due to work intensification and weak welfare state, we have less time and energy to take care of ourselves, our family and others around us. As a result, “care chains” are created and care is transferred in return for payment to immigrants, lower class women etc, thus forming an infinite chain of insecurity. During the lockdown, care provision could not be shifted. Consequently, many households - especially women - had to allot significantly more time for caregiving responsibilities. The combination of distance working and home schooling raises concerns that many women will eventually be entrapped at the very place they had been fighting to leave for decades: at home. A home that is not always a safe place. In Greece, the calls to the national domestic violence hotline almost quadrupled in April 2020.

The second shift is described by companies entering our “living room”. For example, Teleperformance - a company that serves large technology companies as already mentioned - allowed teleworking only after denunciations for the violation of employees’ protection measures, and has now come to offer advice on household rearrangement. Teleworking tends to shift part of the operating costs - directly or indirectly - from companies to employees (equipment, internet, working space, adaptation to “local salaries” while recruiting takes place globally). International counselling sites for managers offer a comprehensive series of instructions on “how to establish an efficient working policy from home”, including rules and practices to maintain (or control) employees’ productivity, availability and effectiveness.

And here comes a plausible third shift. A shift that takes place in our homes, due to the constant bargaining between the digital information of distance working and the material reality of social reproduction. The digital information reality is immaterial, yet capable of “teleporting” us to virtual offices, drawing offices, even classrooms, and keeping our minds busy. Social reproduction is happening right here, right now. It is demanding and makes us exerts ourselves, especially when considering gender-based unequal distribution. It’s not just the demanding nature of both realities.  Entering and leaving relentlessly one for the other disturbs any concept of fulfilment that might make any activity meaningful. Acceleration is constantly alternating with interruption in a state of “frenetic standstill” as Hardmunt Rossa has described it.

Insecure present, open future

Is the future dystopian? One could think of our approach as pessimistic. But we don’t believe so. We do realise, for example, that distance working has some advantages to offer; after all, we are co-writing these lines from two different places in Greece. Such advantages, however, are enjoyed by less and less employees, since they are accompanied by a series of adverse effects - often invisible yet noticeable.

The aim of this article is to highlight that some recent phenomena, as accelerated by the advent of Covid-19 - such as the forms of flexible or distance work described above - actually represent forms of precarious work, and are dangerously evolving into the dominant practice of the labour market. We have tried to achieve this aim by associating seemingly distinctive levels and perspectives: global and local, technological and economic, professional and domestic. Such associations enable us to stop considering these levels in isolation, as if they were a natural force acting alone. Instead, we have started making some critical questions about the future, to help us eventually approach various prospects.  

For example, why is home schooling so strongly promoted? Indeed, some children cannot go to school. However, this fact doesn’t explain why these particular solutions and forms, involving digital platforms, cameras and data reproduction, are preferred over other solutions that already exist or could be developed (technological, social, etc.) or solutions that have been applied in the past and were forgotten. Setting as a useful starting point the association between home schooling and digital capitalism, we can reflect on the control exercised over employees as an inherent - and thus not temporary - feature of digital capitalism.  Establishing different models based on special local needs (social, health, etc.), genuine interest in education and open, participatory processes, could create a true dynamic (social, economic or otherwise), as opposed to concepts copied from different contexts and targeting to different directions. 

The deconstruction of the structural elements of the current crisis and their reconstruction for the production of new prospects is already visible in a series of experimentations, reflections and transformation demands.  

Employees are appropriating platforms and data to reverse the balance of power with companies.  In Greece, collective platforms such as, Radical IT, and Attack collect, analyse and make public complaints for arbitrary actions taken by employers using the pandemic as a pretext. In other cases, employees have used the data collected by companies’ tracing applications to prove their injuries and claim their rights. 

Many employees experiment with new forms of collective work organisation, attempting a transition to platform cooperatives. In Paris and Madrid, couriers who had previously worked for platforms like Deliveroo, are now using the same technology to build cooperative initiatives for the provision of delivery services. All around the world, self-employed professionals are united under the umbrella of new legal forms allowing them to share risks and more effectively claim their rights - like Enspiral, Cooperativa Integral Catalana or Directors Cut in Greece.

Various people and actors shape and support demands for the redistribution of time and access to work and/or the dissociation of work from the right to a decent income. The European Citizens’ Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income, the claim for a care income by the degrowth initiative and the campaign for a four-day-week are all aiming to this end. The form, the conditions and the actors of such reforms are expected to largely determine whether or not they shall favour social justice and radical transformation.

In any case, the mirror of this pandemic is asking us to look in the eye the meaning we attribute to “work”. The current model allows only little recognition and reward for a series of activities that reproduce life and make it worth living. Today, work - as a system of social organisation - only pretends to be working. While, actually, for billions of people it offers much less than promised or could be made available: security, decent living, self-realisation and collegiality. It’s time to reframe it.  

1. Dinerstein, A.C., and Pitts, F.H., 2021. A World Beyond Work? Labour, Money and the Capitalist State Between Crisis and Utopia. Bingley: Emerald

This article is part of the DOSSIER "FOCUS: COVID-19 - Political Debates on the Pandemic with a European Focus"