The year 2020 may have gone by but it is far from over. This year is going to leave its imprint and will be remembered for several reasons. Of course most of it is attributed to the Novel Coronavirus 2019 or COVID-19 as we popularly know it. It has so far claimed over 18.4 lakh lives worldwide and over 8.5 crore people are still affected. It has drastically changed our society, our lives, and how we know the world of work.
Most countries failed to contain the impact of the pandemic, given their more or less identical response to it in the form of ill-planned and badly implemented abrupt lockdowns which led to immense suffering of the working people. The lockdown threw people out of their jobs and pushed them towards pauperisation and starvation. Immigrants were stranded across the world without jobs, without protection, unable to go home.
Indian government announced a complete lockdown on 23 March 2020 without any prior warning, all forms of gatherings and travel were criminalised and public transport services were discontinued overnight. The state took no responsibility of the people who were left jobless and starving pushing them to walk long distances to return to their villages from the towns where they worked. They faced police brutality, criminal cases were lodged against them and they were forcibly returned to the urban centres they had painfully walked hundreds of kilometres to escape.
The government however found opportunity in crisis while people died of hunger and disease. It passed 4 Labour Codes and 3 Farm Laws which were passed with no debate and with no opposition present in the house. Trade unions and farmers’ organisations have since been protesting across the country for their repeal.
Government response to COVID 19 has been similar across the globe. In many countries, including across Europe, starvation and joblessness pushed people to take to the streets, where they were met with police brutality. Governments also shut down courts and passed temporary laws that granted arbitrary powers to the police – Israel shut its court, Germany, Poland and Italy gave specials powers to the police to keep people locked in.
The year of Protests – the year of Repression
Major protests broke out in Belarus, Mexico, Tunisia and USA against police violence. In Belarus, a general strike of workers brought the country to a standstill demanding the resignation of the president and a free and fair election.
The brutal murder of a 46 year old black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police ignited massive protests under the slogan of Black Lives Matter across the US.Protestors demanded slashing of police funding, an end to immunity to police officers for violation of human rights, racial profiling and surveillance. This protest found support in the UK, France and many other countries.
The Year of Surveillance
The global pandemic offered governments and corporations a free hand to scale up their surveillance machinery against working people. While governments promoted it under the guise of containing the virus through contact tracing, corporations had a free run in the name of Work From Home (WFH). Employers used WFH tactfully to blur the lines of working hours and made people work overtime without any overtime pay. As work moved online it became easier for companies to spy on their employees. Companies bought and sold data about their workers and people at large. Corporations across the world milked the ‘opportunity in disaster’ and began a process of drastic restructuring while workers struggled to survive. Firing workers at will in the name of ‘streamlining’ the supply chain or ‘restructuring’ of processes has become a norm. The total number of jobs lost during 2020 is impossible to ascertain, with women and young workers being more affected than others. According to the ILO, the pandemic wiped out some 81 million jobs in the Asia- Pacific region alone.
The Year of Gig work
Airlines, travel and hospitality and fast fashion industry saw the sharpest decline and largest job cuts. Ban on flying and travel forced workers in aviation and tourism industry out of jobs. Airline companies and hotel chains laid off a large number of contract workers and pushed wage cuts on others. Contract teachers and support staff at educational institutions met a similar fate. Those who were able to retain their jobs found themselves overworked and exhausted as they struggled with internet based classrooms and exams. Lack of connectivity, devices and educational material among students hailing from marginalised communities and poor economic background widened the gap public school teachers have been struggling to bridge for long. Women yet again lost out the most. The double burden of household chores, care work and sustaining a job has affected their growth severely.
As people took a break from excessive buying due to the lockdown and job and income loss resulting from it, our economy which thrives on a use and throw consumption received a major blow. The fast fashion industry bore the brunt of it as people limited their spendings to essentials. The garment and footwear supply chain is still grappling with the impact of the lockdown.
The shuttering down of marketplaces however led to an increase in delivery jobs, a market which has been monopolised by companies which work through mobile technology and skirt all labour laws by wrongly classifying their workers as ‘independent contactors’ or self-employed people. Amazon, Deliveroo, DoorDash, Swiggy, Zomato etc., saw an unprecedented demand and thereby soaring profits. However, their profits did not trickle down to the workers, instead it led to a rise in jobs with fixed term contracts or gig work with no income or social security. State of California in USA tried putting a leash on the profiteering companies but failed. A coalition of tech companies formed a fund of over US$200 Million to fight the legislation. While Amazon advertised for hiring ‘professionals’ adept at union busting. Delivery workers unionised and protested for better pay and working conditions across several countries including Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Thailand and USA.
The Invisible Workers
As the number of COVID infected people grew, the situation worsened and it became clearer that the existing economic system geared towards amassing profits through mindless consumption and the political structure which supports it are working against people’s interest.
Health care workers, sanitation workers, domestic workers, transport workers, mail and post workers and other people who risked their life everyday to ensure that we do not lose this battle against the virus remain the worse affected lot amongst working people. Healthcare workers not only had to survive inhumane working hours, they had to put up a battle against government apathy which denied them basic Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), a decent wage and in some cases even misinformation being spread by elected government leaders.
Sanitation workers, care givers, domestic workers and transport workers whose work was considered unimportant and who had been kept invisible up until now became visible and took centre stage. They demanded PPEs, regular jobs with better wages and fixed working conditions. However, their movement to gain workers’ rights were crushed by the judiciary. Canada, India, Kenya, USA and Zimbabwe are some such examples where Courts intervened declared workers’ strikes illegal, ordered them back to work or face jail term.
2020 may have brought upon us several unprecedented challenges but it has also exposed the rotten political and economic system that we are currently living in. It has exposed that privatisation of public resources like health care, education, public transport etc., only benefits a handful of rich to become richer. It has told us that if we come together we can change this system. In Chile when hungry people took to streets the government had to kneel down and strengthen the public food distribution system. Spain nationalised all its private hospitals and returned to a universal healthcare system. Portugal and Greece promulgated ordinances to treat all immigrants at par with document bearing citizens with equal rights and put a hold on repatriating immigrants.
People’s united struggle made all this and much more a reality. As capital sharpens its attack against working people, let us struggle for our dream of a different world.