Appreciated or exploited? Key workers in a coronavirus world | Coronavirus pandemic

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Around the world, workers in what have been deemed "essential services,quot; are tirelessly trying to keep the coronavirus pandemic under control and keep us going in the meantime.

These are the nurses, farm workers, supermarket employees, truckers, and teachers who support many of us so that we can participate in our "social distancing."

And guess what: An eight or maybe 10 hour shift at a grocery store, whether it be stocking shelves in France or working at the cash register in the United States, was not a particularly pleasant experience before the coronavirus surprised the world realizing that these essential workers exist.

The question is, will this global health emergency awaken us to the need to change our global economy to more justly benefit those who keep it afloat? Or, will we simply recognize essential service workers now with a smile when we see them at the store (where you can still shop in stores) or at the clinic, or a "thank you,quot; post on Facebook, just to forget about them? ? morning?

The definition of essential services. varies by country but typically, the same occupations tend to make the list.

For example, when California established its "take refuge in place"The order, which calls on state residents to stay home when possible and refrain from public meetings, explicitly exempted the professions in what the United States federal government considers to be,quot;critical infrastructure sector"

This sector includes people who work in agriculture, healthcare, water and waste management, education, and public safety, including specific professions such as police, fire, first responders, cable installation workers, and journalists.

Let's start with agriculture: what has been happening in food production while many of us have been home and keeping a safe distance from our neighbors?

In California – Monterey County specifically – Farmworkers have been told they are exempt from the shelter-in-place order and are expected to continue working in the fields.

This means that there is no social distancing for agricultural workers, that is, unless the space that counts is the one that exists between people who eat California lettuce from the safety of their homes and workers who risk their health by picking it up.

The message is clear: If you are working in the California fields, where most of the US fruits and vegetables USA originate, then you have to go to work, no matter if a virus infects thousands, daily.

To make matters worse, some estimate that between 50 percent and 75 percent Of the nearly three million people working in the fields are undocumented immigrants, subjecting them to arrest and possible deportation. Their work is also poorly paid, with an average salary between $ 15,000 and $ 18,000 one year.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron declared Those who work in the food industry, including supermarket workers, are essential. Thanks to this, the French can be sure that when they go out and do their shopping, the coronavirus will not close the places where they buy their daily needs.

Were these workers equally appreciated by the government before the coronavirus arrived in France? Not really – orchestrated Macron a labor reform who brought a knife to the industry, leading stores like the supermarket chain, Carrefour, to fire thousands of people just a couple of years ago.

Those who still work, because they are expected to, do so for longer periods of time than before because, during his tenure, his president has given companies greater powers dismiss workers and fix payments in case of unfair dismissal.

The situation is similar in the United Kingdom. There, are the workers in the "key industries"Those who keep the economy going. Especially in medical care, the already understaffed National Health Service, as a result of 10 years of government austerity policies, is forced by the coronavirus outbreak to care for thousands of unexpected patients.

And in the UK more than 13 percent of people working in health care are foreigners. To add insult to injury, these are people who have had to endure possibly racist comments by the country's prime minister who have mocked dark-skinned and foreign-born working people.

In all of these countries, it is unclear what would happen if essential workers decide they do not want to work and stay home like the rest of us, and for how long they will continue to work under extreme conditions.

If history is a guide, then it indicates that the exploitation of essential workers can continue almost without end.

Remember the Braceros, the Mexican-born farmworkers who were recruited during World War II to work in the United States. This program was initially designed as an emergency measure, which began in 1942, to guarantee food supplies to the American population during the war. The wages were set before the arrival of the workers, as well as their accommodation and working conditions, essentially ensuring that they did not have representation and there is no way to express complaints.

For this reason, taking into account both the current situation and our history, we must make this latest crisis an opportunity.

This is the right time to demand not only progressive policies: living wages for all, full citizenship for undocumented workers, comprehensive and fully funded social services such as healthcare, but also our course of change in the global economy.

The people who ensure our survival now need to have more power in dealing with political and economic elites in the future, whether through unions or civil society organizations, so that future crises never force so many to risk so much.

The stakes are high for everyone. What if workers get sick, or after working under extreme pressure, just can't keep up? Or if, when their working conditions worsen in hospitals, supermarkets and in the fields, they decide that now is the time to protest and demand changes? So what?

We can make our social distancing as much as we want. But without food, we'll see how long that lasts.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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