#4_The Covid lesson: Risks and dangers of violating labour standards

In many countries, media are full of mass infection cases in workplaces such as parcel delivery centers or meat packaging plants, but also elderly care homes, hospitals and schools. End of April, after a series of service delivery centers’ worker protests, even the resignation of a high-ranking business executive made global headlines: Tim Bray, Amazon vice-president and distinguished engineer, left the company because he could not continue with what he saw as a mistreatment of warehouse workers during the pandemic.

With the Covid19 pandemic unfolding, the predominantly female key workers have been rediscovered, because they are essential for keeping daily life running. And the spotlight of public attention shows those key workers’ regular work and employment conditions. And, the experts knew before, this picture isn’t a nice one. Despite the obvious differences between, say, the retail work in a supermarket and the care work in a hospital, in many of these sectors there is a high number of part-time workers and fixed-term contracts on short notice. Especially where these jobs are classified as private services, jobs are low-paying despite high work-stress levels and high physical job requirements. Often times, wages are around the minimum wage level and the occupations are seen as low-skilled ones. On the worksites, one encounters all sorts of subcontracting arrangements like posted work or temporary agency work. Frequently, the protections of collective agreements, unions and shopfloor representation are missing (e.g. Bosch 2015). All in all, one may conclude that the more a job is classified as being essential, the lower the pay, the lower the labour standards and the more precarious the job.

Unfortunately, this situation is only in parts caused by the pandemic shock. Rather, the scandals around key jobs epitomize a more general disease that has infected the world of work in recent decades. One exemplar is meat-packaging. In this industry, we have seen recent scandals about Covid-related labour standard violations, for example in the USA and in Germany. At the same time, in this business, we find a well-established system of extensive subcontracting in which a host of activities has been contracted-out, because management does not consider these to be part of the core operations any longer. And, agency work has become such a widespread phenomenon that one may conclude that industries and firms aim for circumventing rules and regulations concerning minimum wages or health and safety issues which now backfires.

It would be a false conclusion, hence, to see these violations as a pandemic-specific issue alone, caused by suddenly increased health and safety requirements in high-risk industries. Weak labour standards endanger the safety of work in general, a fact just made perfectly obvious where subcontractors take over risky tasks within their clients’ operations. For example, Litwin and colleagues (Litwin et al., 2017) have excavated how subcontracted cleaning services contribute to the spreading of health care-associated infections in hospitals. However, labour standard violations have serious indirect repercussions in many other sectors and industries as well, regardless of whether there is a pandemic-specific media attention or not. Similar violations can also be found in numerous subcontracted services such as property and facility services, cleaning services, food and parcel delivery, cross-border truck driving, catering or security. Even manufacturing and services supply chains are infected by this disease which are usually expected to be safe workplaces. For example, in 2016, a big German chemical industry’s corporation had to inform about a deadly fire accident which was caused by an industrial service subcontractor working on a pipeline.

Taken together, the recent scandals around the Covid pandemic just put the spotlight on a serious lack in a well-functioning labour inspection in what has been described as the fissured workplace (Weil, 2019). The downsides of the multi-employer work arrangements bred by today’s value creation networks and subcontracting have just been made more visible now. And obviously, labour standard violations are not just a tragic problem in countries like India, China, Bangladesh or Russia, but their negative consequences can be observed in what is over-confidently described as the “developed countries”. High time to revive a labour inspection which is capable of disciplining those responsible to actually follow the rules in daily business operations, again. And, these scandals reveal that the protection of workers by union representation and workplace participation in health and safety issues is indispensable (Bosch & Weinkopf, 2017), also in non-pandemic times, of course.

Bosch, G. (2015). Shrinking collective bargaining coverage, increasing income inequality: A comparison of five EU countries. International Labour Review, 154(1): 57-66.
Bosch, G. & Weinkopf, C. (2017). Reducing wage inequality: The role of the state in improving job quality. Work and Occupations, 44(1): 68-88.
Litwin, A. S., Avgar, A.C. and Becker, E.R. (2017). Superbugs versus outsourced cleaners: Employment arrangements and the spread of health care-associated infections. ILR Review, 70(3): 610-641.
Marchington, M., Grimshaw, D., Rubery, J. & Willmott, H. (eds) 2005. Fragmenting Work. Blurring organizational boundaries and disordering hierarchies. Oxford University Press: New York.
Weil, D. (2019). Understanding the present and future of work in the fissured workplace context. Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 5(5): 147-165.

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