The Insanity of Making Sick People Work

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 2023 ... March 17, 2020

The Insanity of Making Sick People Work

Mark Bergfeld

Coronavirus is putting extra burdens on workers, from health professionals to low-paid cleaning staff at the front line of combating infection. Yet many of these same workers don’t even have the right to sick pay -- meaning they’ll feel compelled to work even if it risks spreading the virus.

After the evacuation of its coronavirus-hit passengers, the Princess Diamond cruise ship needed thorough cleaning. An Australian contractor won the tender and duly sent its cleaners a text message offering a "great opportunity" for a week’s work. The workers in question were school cleaners, inexperienced in dealing with such hazardous conditions. But given their low wages, the promised $5,000 to $6,000 for a week was bound to appeal.

Fortunately, the United Workers Union wasn’t ready to stand for management’s careless attitude. They held protests at company headquarters and urged cleaners not to accept the job. The working hours and working conditions remained anything but transparent -- and the cleaners hadn’t received specific training. The workers... hadn’t even been screened for their own preexisting health conditions, which could have left them particularly vulnerable.

This dispute over the Princess Diamond encapsulated a big problem with how media usually present the coronavirus crisis. There’s been lots of coverage about how governments and businesses have sought to cope with the outbreak. Rather less attention is paid to how it is reshaping the world of work -- and the burden placed on workers themselves. But it really is making a difference, and not only for health professionals.

From low-wage service workers to delivery drivers in Wuhan keeping a quarantined population fed, it is workers who are having to deal with the effects of the crisis -- and who are often put in most danger. Indeed, cleaners and janitors will, in many cases, be the first line of defense against the spread of the virus. This strikingly illustrates how absurd it is that they often count among the worst-paid workers.

Faced with this situation -- and mounting changes to how even the lowest-wage jobs operate -- we shouldn’t just treat coronavirus as some sort of natural disaster. It urgently poses the need for unions to organize to protect workers’ safety -- and make sure that those on the front line have both the remuneration they deserve and the protections they need.

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