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What is the Point of Work? Pandemic’s Lessons about Work Injustice and Social Inequality

This crisis is prompting a self-reflection about the very way we conceive of work, its ends, its rewards and organization. This paper discusses how the pandemic reveals and exacerbates pre-existing tensions and inequalities in the division of labor. In particular: the mismatch between work’s value and its rewards, the unequal division of risk, unreciprocated advantages in the division of labor, the fragility of care chains and the conflict between the reasons of profit and the reasons of life as ends of work. Work involves many complementary dimensions relevant to social justice: wage and income, but also recognition, organization, voice – to consider during and after the pandemic.


As the pandemic spreads, we are experiencing a sort of state of emergency of work. Many cannot afford quarantine and have no choice but to keep working (subway, taxi drivers, manual laborers among others) while an increasing number of people are being laid off and short-term contracts are not being renewed, in what looks like an authentic job recession. Care chains are in crisis as well. Families are experiencing the pressure of a double load of care responsibilities and labor obligations, while educational and care outsourcing are no longer available. While many have the chance to work from home in relative comfort, others – healthcare personnel, farmers, delivery workers, security workers, only to mention a few – are being asked to work at the frontline of risk to ensure essential services and goods for all.

The distribution of key work, and therefore of work’s risk, is very unequal: low income workers and women are the most exposed. In normal time, they are seen as ‘low skilled workers’. In emergency time, their work is recognized as ‘key’. This is a relevant shift in the social perception of work’s value: rather than pointing to alleged characteristics of workers (‘low-skilled’), it refers to the quality of needs fulfilled by their work (‘essential’). By publicly re-labelling it, people seem to be more prone to acknowledge the far under-estimated value of essential work. Despite its symbolic and political significance, this recognition hardly goes beyond public statements though.

The social division of risk

Rather than receiving higher rewards as a result of such renewed recognition, these workers are being given an exceptionally heavy burden, from which many of us have the privilege of being exempted, with very little in return. No surprise that while governments have included delivery workers in their lists of key work (see for example the UK and Quebec lists) and companies are increasing the availability of delivery services, Instacart and Amazon delivery workers are refusing to accept orders in the absence of adjustments of pay and safer work conditions. Even in normal times, delivery work is risky, very low paid, and benefits from no social protection, let alone social status. Yet these days, delivery workers are in charge of a vital task: bringing food and supplies to people’s homes in order for them to keep going under quarantine.

In this context, the social division of labor is also a social division of risk. There are at least two kinds of risk involved. First, health-related risks due to workers’ increased exposure to infection. Second, the economic risk to lose one’s job as an exclusive source of income, especially if one is willing to avoid the former risk by not going to work. Both these risks affect the most vulnerable individuals in the labor chain, leaving workers in safer conditions relatively unaffected, all the while benefiting from their work.

By exacerbating already existing tensions in the division of labor, the pandemic is making more visible what was already before our eyes but we did not see. We are all dependent on other people’s work, but in a very unequal way. Many of those of whom we depend the most tend to be those we reward less and who have less voice. To be sure, this was the case also in ‘normal’ times. The crisis is unveiling that what we used to think of as ‘normal’ was not that normal after all. Rather than a state of emergency, it seems more like the state of normality’s tensions of work coming up together at once.

Prestige and the reversed hierarchy of rewards

Such unequal distribution of the pandemic labor burdens reflects the unequal division of economic and social rewards attached to occupations. The pandemic is making more visible that the system of rewards attribution does not reflect the ‘use value’ of many jobs. It rather depends on the market. For instance, without care work society could simply not exist, and yet many have doubts that it is even work at all. Likewise, without streets free of waste, the risks for health in an already concerning scenario would be dangerously high. And still, is there a less visible, and yet more essential, category of workers than waste collectors? By ‘invisible’ I mean something precise. Not only being seen, recognized and valued for what we do is crucial for work to be a meaningful human experience and not mere drudgery, but also because of the political resonance you can hope to get when it comes to claiming rights. If no one sees you, how can your demands be possibly met?

At the opposite side of the spectrum, people have no doubts that what many professionals do is work, and a very respectable one. Professionals are the most rewarded, both economically and in terms of power and prestige, yet if many of them stopped working this would not necessarily stop society’s functioning (with obvious exceptions, like doctors. Yet, could doctors do their job without cleaners, nurses, healthcare personnel?) As the word itself tells us, and as social scientists such as Everett Hughes have shown, professions’ prestige – from latin ‘profiteri’, meaning ‘publicly claiming’ – has also to do with the historical ability to protect interests. If reward was about the contribution to meet key social needs, the compensation for waste collecting and, say, business consulting, would have been very different. However, also professionals have lost old benefits. Consider for instance the ‘entreprecariat’, a category of workers that combines characteristics of entrepreneurialism and the precariat.

Our perception of the relevance of occupations is socially constructed. There are publicly circulating narratives, stories we tell about them, historical crystallizations of which occupations deserve more rewards and higher social regard. Rather than describing an essence or the actual quality of work’s performance, occupational prestige points to underlying conceptions about what is worthier in society and therefore deserves more respect. This is not only visible in the very structures of work, but also in our attitudes and interactions. Certain workers command more deference, others indifference if not scorn, many are socially invisible and segregated. The division of labor functions like a status circle. Individuals from low status social groups – migrants, women, people of color, lower classes – are more likely to perform work in low status occupations, and such occupations in turn perpetuate their low social status. The division of labor lies at the core of this circle, which many times functions like a status trap.

This is concerning in that prestige very powerfully mediates access to other valuable goods – power, for example, as well as economic reward. The mismatch between the scale of needs and the scale of work value has led to a sort of reversed hierarchy of reward. It reflects the higher value given to jobs whose main purpose is to make profits rather than fulfilling social needs.

Two classes of workers: who benefits whom?

When addressing labor concerns, most of the times we focus on the conflict between capital and labor, neglecting that tensions occur also within labor. Workers are not equal. Some get much more than others, have more room for choice, social recognition, safety, rights, stability, free time, interesting tasks, prospects of mobility than others. Rewards include much more than wages: quality of life, prospects of improvement, room for self-development and self-realization, and ultimately freedom. This inequality recalls André Gorz’ ‘labor aristocracy’, which we may contrast with what Guy Standing refers to as the ‘precariat’.

This sometimes resembles an odious servant-served pattern, hardly compatible with the standards of a society of equals. As Gorz said in Les métamorphoses du travail, in this situation ‘some can buy a supplement of free time from others, while the latter are reduced to serve the former. This stratification of society is different from the stratification in classes’ (2004, 22, my translation). It is a stratification within the division of labor.

This is concerning not merely because of inequality as such. More fundamentally, it is about unreciprocated advantages in the division of labor. While the usual justification of this state of things traces back to individual differences in education and talents, which cannot be decoupled from unequal opportunities, social scientists such as Charles Tilly have shown that the very way we conceive of work organization is itself a powerful generator of durable inequalities.

Society is expecting a lot from key workers without giving much back. Are we asking them to do this out of humanitarian sacrifice? Justice is not about discretionary charity, it is about what we owe to each other in a community of equals. The expectation of exceptional civic ethos from certain workers is at odds with all members of society’s duties of reciprocity. In other words, in order to legitimately expect that each does one’s part in social cooperation, social cooperation must give an adequate return. The very functioning of society is grounded on this fundamental, tacit pact. If broken, it can legitimately lead these workers to refuse their responsibilities and the related risks. What if they decided to stop doing their job out of (legitimate) fear, given the low rewards? In some way, society does not expect them to do it because they simply could not afford it (not to mention that strike is not a right everywhere). In that case, the already fragile functioning of our system would likely collapse.

Indeed, this is already happening in some sectors. In Europe, the ‘shadow army’ of normally over-exploited migrants in seasonal agricultural work are refusing to move to go pick fruits and vegetables, thereby forcing governments to find quick solutions. If unaddressed, this shortage of seasonal workers can lead to the collapse of the food supply chain. While in the UK a ‘pick for Britain’ campaign has been launched, it is particularly telling of the gravity of the situation that in Spain the government is considering to allow unaccompanied migrant minors to do the job through a special work permit, in order for them to stay in the country just for the duration of the contract. This short circuit of the global labor outsourcing leads to extreme measures still grounded on status inequalities between citizens and non-citizens, thereby exacerbating the inequalities of normalized practices. In a recent interview, the Italian Minister of Agriculture said that despite constructing a ‘green passage’ so as to allow workers to circulate during the lockdown (a norm adopted by the EU), that workers from Romania or Poland (who have been paid ‘for years under the table’) don’t want to move: ‘we are now realizing how much we need migrants’. Italy is the same country where consensus for anti-immigration populism has been growing during the last years. Everyone is now somehow obliged to acknowledge the absolute key relevance of some of the most exploited work, within a system that grounds the wealth of the North on the work of the non-citizens from the South.

What is the point of work?

Work is the way society meets social needs, but also the way profits are pursued. Behind decisions about which categories to include in the list of key work, there are also underlying judgements of value about whether profits should be prioritized over social needs. In Quebec, alcohol shops figure in the governments’ list of essential services. In Florida, wrestling entertainment has been included in the list of essential services. Despite the lockdown, a factory producing fighter-bombers in Italy has re-opened recently. Likewise, the Italian government has waited several weeks before ordering factories’ closure. In these cases, the line that divides essential from non-essential work looks porous. Which reveals a conflict between the reasons of profit and the reasons of life, as it were.

As the hierarchy of needs is being affected by the pandemic, so work, as one of the most important ways to meet these needs, is massively being affected. This crisis brings us back to some substantive questions about things we normally overlook about our role as contributors in society. We are somehow obliged to see the connection of our work with that of others, the inequality and unreciprocated advantages behind it, and to reflect about the way we recognize value and attribute rewards to work, as well as about the ends of work on a wider scale. The current situation encourages questions such as: What is the point of work? What ends does it serve? Are they desirable? Which ones should work serve instead? Can we question and re-shape these ends so as to make work a fairer, more human thing? This is a moment of political self-reflection which if taken seriously, constitutes an exceptional opportunity to rethink society in the long term.

At a smaller scale and in a different form, the conflict between the reasons of work and the reasons of life is being exacerbated also at the level of the household, through a double pressure of care responsibilities and employment obligations. Families have to meet labor responsibilities while looking after their children at home (in many cases readjusting to home schooling), which in normal times is resolved through care outsourcing to nannies, grandmothers, educational institutions. I am talking about ‘families’, yet in how many cases should we just say ‘women’? This is true not only with regard to parenting, but also to care for the elderly and the disabled. When faced with the possibility of switching to online lessons, teachers who have children at home struggle to handle this double pressure as well, all the while babysitters, nannies, housekeepers are no longer an option even for those who could afford them. These workers in the global chain of care lie at the bottom of the social ladder, they are mostly women, often migrants, underpaid and without social protections (see the case of house cleaners in the US).

Likewise, it should not be neglected that many healthcare workers (however their position in the income and prestige scale is) are self-isolating from their families, they cannot even see their children in order to prevent infection. Even the rediscovered coziness of family life under quarantine is unequally distributed.

Indeed, the degree in which the tension is experienced changes based on which side on of the essential / non-essential work line you are, and therefore, based on the benefits that go with your job. Those who cannot work from home, perhaps without benefiting from any division of labor in the household (think of single-parent families), experience the tension at its maximum. The pandemic is bringing the already latent crisis of generalized care outsourcing into light, showing how precarious the equilibrium of care chains is, as it only takes one piece for the whole outsourcing circuit to fall. This reveals once again the underestimated dependence (or should I say free-riding) of productive from reproductive work.

No contribution without redistribution: Social justice during and after the pandemic

In this scenario, many concerns of justice arise. To begin with, concerns of distributive justice, that is, about the way the benefits and burdens of social cooperation ought to be distributed, to quote John Rawls’ famous expression. But also concerns of contributive justice about the division of labor, as Paul Gomberg called it, and of democratization, which distributive views overlook. (I have mentioned earlier the relevance of social recognition for the value of work). In what follows, I briefly outline some broad suggestions with regard to each of them, based on the intuition that the more dimensions of work are addressed, the more work justice is realized. For instance, work justice cannot be decoupled by income redistribution. And yet, while crucial, income redistribution is not sufficient for work justice.

All of these concerns ultimately converge on the ideal of social equality. According to this ideal – relaunched by the philosophical tradition of relational egalitarianism –, members of society should treat  each other as equals. In my view, this has not merely to do with expressing respect in one-to-one interactions. We can be very respectful with others, and still being occupationally segregated. Therefore social equality ought to be realized also in the very way we cooperate, create and recognize value. If this is hard to translate into practice, we can at least measure the distance from the ideal and try to reduce it. The current crisis is unveiling that there are ways to organize work that perpetuate unreciprocated advantages in the division of labor and social inequality (recall the ‘status circle’) and it is society’s responsibility to reduce them as much as possible. The strategies of justice that I am about to mention, thus, are to be considered as complementary ways to pursue this goal.

As for distributive justice, key workers should get higher pay as a counterpart of the extra-burden they are taking as well as their status of equal members of society. Higher pay for key workers would redress the reversed hierarchy of reward based on the mismatch between social needs and work’s worth, thereby truly treating these workers as equals. This is even more relevant if we consider the exceptionally high pay received by many professionals and managers, and the always more pressing demands to reduce the overall wage gap.

At the end of the day, we are expecting these workers to do their job based on the economic blackmail that if they stopped working they would lose their exclusive source of income. Since the system is grounded on wage-labor dependence (at least if you are not a rentier), they have no choice but to work despite the risks. Unconditional access to income would remove the economic blackmail and make their contribution a conscious choice, treating them as equals instead of less valuable workers deserving lower rewards despite the higher burdens. At the same time, it would reduce the unfairness of the social division of risk by enabling workers in economic need to stop working. And it would sustain free lance workers that can work from home but register a worrisome decrease of demand. From this perspective, old concerns of political philosophers about the Malibu surfer who benefits from unconditional income while having fun on the beach sound so misplaced. The surfer is likely to be stuck at home quarantined right now, benefiting from the work of the worst off as much as the idle rich (to mention this somehow mythological figure). Overall, this may be summed up by the slogan: ‘no contribution without redistribution’. Some countries are already providing income to help people afford the quarantine, but overall there is still hesitation about it, and in many cases it is not even an option in the debate.

To be sure, justice has not only to do with wages, income and taxes, but also with the very way we cooperate. Policies like basic income do not transform the division of labor, they do not solve the problem of who ought to perform socially necessary labor, they do not make work organization fairer, and while widening freedom of choice, they do not give voice to workers and therefore power to change the rules of the game. In other words, to the extent that the response is only distributive, the solution is partial and does not change the underlying structures that perpetuate labor subordination.

Thus another, complementary concern of justice has more directly to do with the division of work, particularly socially necessary work. Contributive justice calls for rethinking the very way we conceive of occupations and organize work, a different concern from wage and income redistribution. It answers questions such as: who has to toil, and according to what norms? How are we to share the costs and advantages of socially necessary labor? Are there fairer ways to assemble tasks into jobs, and to distribute the benefits that go with them? How to break work’s status circle? The pandemic shows that socially vulnerable groups end up bearing higher labor costs to the benefit of all. This is not consistent with how a society of equals should look like. The burden of meeting social needs should be more equally shared.

A number of ways can be considered to redress the inequality of socially necessary labor. Rotation of routine tasks in small organizations have been suggested by some, along with national service when possible, besides higher pay for unattractive work and more free time for certain work categories. Prioritizing automation of the most burdensome work can be also desirable in the long run, compatibly with redistribution in order to prevent loss of income (which clarifies the relevance of multidimensionality).

Another complementary strategy is the democratization of the workplace to increase workers’ voice in decision-making processes concerning their work. Things would be very different if delivery workers had decisional power on the conditions of work. Despite the emphasis on innovation and flexibility (along with the questionable impression of horizontality conveyed by the concept of ‘sharing economy’), platforms that manage delivery work are most of the times centrally controlled. Many strategies can be realized to increase workers’ control. To take an example, platform cooperativism is a way to rethink the very structure of platforms that mediate gig work in such a way that concerns like decent pay, legal protections and a worker-owned reputation system are integrated. Likewise, reputational pressure on companies by attributing ‘fairness scores’ based on a number of criteria (fair pay, conditions, contracts, management, and workers’ representation), can push them to change.

A perhaps unexpected outcome we are seeing is the positive environmental impact of work reduction. Pollution has dropped in many areas as a result of drastic reduction of workers commute and industrial emissions. This is certainly part of work justice concerns, providing an environmental case for work  reduction. However, work reduction alone does not fix the problem of justice for key workers. Without rethinking the very distribution of socially necessary labor, the post-work ideal risks being an exclusivist one. Working less has to be grounded on fairness in the overall organization of work, not in the massive outsourcing of work to the worst off. The politics of working time reduction has to go with concerns for work reorganization and redistribution of its benefits and burdens. Otherwise, the ethics of the refusal of work ends up resulting in a refusal of work for the few.

To be sure, none of this means that we should get rid of all occupations not immediately essential to society’s basic needs. Ours is a complex society, and so are its needs, and it is part of what we usually mean by ‘progress’ that not merely basic needs are met. There is nothing inherently good in regressing to the lower ladder of needs; the needs at the top of Maslow’s pyramid are no less legitimate than those at the bottom. It should be also part of what we mean by ‘progress’ that the system of rewards and the very way we conceive of the division of labor be transformed, so as to reflect alternative systems of value in which workers are treated as equals. Likewise, that between profits and needs is not necessarily a trade-off. We can recall Erik Olin Wright’s suggestion to stop thinking in terms of great disruptions, in favor of more hybrid scenarios in which egalitarian practices co-exist with still unequal structures.

Overall, the outcome of a fairer organization of labor should entail several, complementary strategies. Work is complex and involves many dimensions, and so should be our response. These may sound too demanding, unrealistic strategies, which surely take long time and perseverance to implement. Yet this is no reason not to take them seriously, and to realize them gradually. If egalitarian practices can advance in a highly unequal world, creating hybrid systems rather than big ruptures, degrees of justice can be envisaged. Perhaps the most urgent strategies right now are the distributive responses of higher pay for key workers and unconditional access to income for all, along with more voice and control for workers.

Crises can help us to come to terms with things we used to take for granted, unveiling their contradictions and changing the threshold of moral tolerance towards them. They force us to focus on the core of problems, making us seeing more distinctively what actually matters. The emergency can inspire new organizational creativities and encourage a serious self-reflection about the very ends of work and the way we think of social cooperation, leading to changes in the long term.

It is already clear that what is happening can take a conservative or a progressive turn. We will see which tendency will prevail in the long run. While the emergency has taken an authoritarian turn in some cases (Hungary for example), the pandemic is also leading to progressive decisions, previously unthinkable. We will see whether all this will lead us to a new Middle Ages or to a more equitable world.

By Denise Celentano

Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank Peter Dietsch and Juliette Roussin for helpful comments on an earlier draft.