Hidden in plain sight

The vulnerability of NHS workers to becoming infected by the Covid-19 patients with whom they are working is well understood. Sadly, many have died of the disease as a result of their contact (1). The courage NHS staff show in turning up for work each day and caring for their patients has led to great appreciation from the public, notably in the public demonstrations on several Thursday evenings when people clap or bang pots and pans in appreciation from their doorsteps and balconies. Similar demonstrations of appreciation are held across Europe, this form of demonstration having started in Italy, in solidarity with their overwhelmed healthcare workers.

What has not been so widely appreciated, however, is that other “essential workers” are equally or even more vulnerable. Bus drivers and train staff come into contact with many hundreds and even thousands of people every day, even after lockdown. They are extremely vulnerable.

While London Transport has placed perspex screens in many buses in an attempt to protect its drivers, this is clearly not doing its job. Other workers have zero protection. To date, 21 transport workers have died in London alone (2). I have not been able to find figures for the country as a whole but suspect that it will be a multiple of this number.

By some accounts warehouse workers and supermarket staff are just as vulnerable as transport workers. Once one person is infected in a warehouse, the infection quickly spreads. Amazon has so far failed to meet even basic standards of human decency in how it treats its staff, refusing to grant them sick leave when required, let alone ensuring adequate standards of social distancing (3).

Likewise, delivery drivers are exposed to regular contact with many hundreds of people a day. What do you do if you need the pay in order to survive, pay which is based on the number of deliveries completed on time, and upon which we are all increasingly reliant as a society, and yet every delivery represents an unknown level of risk? I don’t we have the answer as a society and I don’t think they do as individuals.

One thing I am happy to see, is that these once overlooked people, who include many who are on zero-hours contracts, short-time work, and other forms of insecure work, are now being viewed as “essential workers”. Now that we know them to be essential, and sometimes brave, maybe we can all help ensure they are at least paid a living wage.

Many, if not most of these workers, are currently among the large numbers of working poor, where limited income ensures their poverty, however hard they work (4). I hope we can now ensure they receive a wage that reflects the overall prosperity of our society, not just the small change that trickles down from the rich and the powerful.

Whenever such things are mentioned, the retort comes back, “this will mean higher taxes!” Indeed, it might also mean higher fares and higher delivery charges – but this is what a fairer and more just society looks like: richer people contributing more. If we want real change, we will all have to do with less and pay more for what we consume.

Covid-19 is teaching us all lessons. What is true for ensuring social justice is likely to be just as true for dealing with the climate crisis.

  • (1) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/nhs-workers-died-coronavirus-frontline-victims/
  • (2) https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/transport-london-21-coronavirus-deaths-mayor-sadiq-khan-a4413431.html
  • (3) https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/20/senators-to-bezos-give-amazon-warehouse-workers-sick-leave-hazard-pay.html
  • (4) The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on in-work Poverty: https://www.jrf.org.uk/work/in-work-poverty

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