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Invisible labour and tangible risk

On working through a pandemic

Nisa Malli

Photo by Anshu A on Unsplash

Lately, all of my labour—domestic, creative, and income-earning—has shrunk to the space of a studio apartment. My office now doubles as my kitchen table, my gym, and my sick bed. It is a home which felt small even when I had access to third spaces for work, leisure, and exercise (such as cafes, parks, libraries and other shared public and commercial spaces). Now—under quarantine—it feels like a science fiction outpost somewhere with an unbreathable atmosphere.

For those who can work remotely, the pandemic has shifted our labour out of the workplace and into our homes. At the same time, the value, visibility, and risk of social reproduction work is rising: the labour that feeds, clothes, cleans, and cares for us. This includes nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers; janitors and cleaners; agricultural and food processing workers; grocery store workers and food delivery drivers; laundromat staff and garbage collectors, as well as the construction workers, transit drivers, hardware store employees and others deemed “essential” and still obliged to be out in the world. Faced with increased demand, union and labour activist pressure, and the risk of workers quitting, a number of provinces have raised pay for health care and long-term care workers. This has included harmonizing pay in public and private sector facilities, and least four major grocery store companies have raised cashier and stock clerk wages. Under a state of emergency, we are learning what kinds of work are actually necessary to sustain us, much of which is work that has historically been undervalued and underpaid. In a pandemic that has disrupted work and life and emphasized the irreplaceability and vulnerability of in-person essential labour, invisible and home-bound labour has the privilege of reducing exposure, and working visibly and outside of the home comes with substantially higher risks.

I am lucky enough to be working from home, to still be employed, and have access to paid sick days and a flexible schedule, but this is very much not the norm. Statistics Canada reports that more than one million workers (5.3 percent of the workforce) became unemployed in March alone, bringing the country to the lowest employment rate since 1997. Many more remained employed but worked less than half or none of their usual hours, numbers that are expected to increase as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy rolls out. Early statistics suggest that total applicants for EI and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) are already as high as 6 million. The biggest employment decreases have been for youth aged 15 to 24, women, and workers in less secure jobs, including temporary, contract, and seasonal workers. Income support ranges from up to $847 per week for workers who remain employed but are not being paid, $500 for those who have been laid off or fired due to the pandemic or who are sick or need to isolate, and $312.50 for students and recent graduates whose summer jobs have disappeared. Advocates have flagged that, under the current program design, whole segments of the population are not yet covered. This could include sex workers, migrant workers, undocumented workers, artists, those already receiving social or disability assistance, anyone who was unemployed prior to mid-March, and anyone still earning over $1000 per month through part-time work or other income sources. Everyone—unless they still have stable, secure employment they can do from home—has been financially shaken or put at risk, but not all of our precarity is valued the same.

As a researcher, I feel like I should be commenting on this situation: I research labour, technology, and inequality for a research institute at Ryerson University. But I have been sick—as so many of us are and will be in the coming months—and overwhelmed with the need to rest and the labour of caring for myself while living alone; managing a virus that neither my body, my bloodline, or the collective body politic has ever experienced. As Dr. Hannah MacGregor, a professor of publishing at Simon Fraser University, described in a recent  episode of Secret Feminist Agenda, her podcast about how we enact feminism in our daily lives: “those of us whose jobs are to be observers and commentators on the contemporary moment are finding that this contemporary moment is wildly defying any of the critical skillsets that we have.” She says,  it is difficult to reconcile “the higher level information (the statistics, the charts, the infection rates, the policies, the border closures)…. with a personal embodied experience of what is happening right now, which seem so wildly out of sync with each other.”

The pressure to work through a global crisis can manifest as pressure to show up to an essential job that might be increasingly unsafe, for wages that may be less than the emergency response benefit. It can feel like pressure to stay online and available, or to analyze every drop of new information from every daily press conference, policy change, and publication. It can emerge as the pressure of life-optimization and improvement, to wrangle our domestic labour into something photographable and our bodies into shape, to perfect our schedules or to turn our missing commute times into longer work days. In illness, this pressure can take the form of a list of get-well tasks, symptom management, and transmission prevention, labour that is imperative when the virus is this deadly, and the transmission rates so high.

Living alone, I have been graphing my fevers, my oxygen levels, the intervals between medication and hydration, and intensity of my cough, building up a visible record of invisible symptoms to report back on tele-appointments with doctors and calls from concerned family and friends. In a recent column for Wired Magazine, journalist Laurie Penny, described this approach to working through the pandemic as “processing immense, unknowable collective catastrophe by escaping into smaller everyday emergencies.” Inside, my body is doing the work of fighting off the infection and the infection is doing the work of trying to kill me, or rather of using me to replicate and spread, were I to go out in the world and touch loved ones and surfaces. This fight is too small for the human eye to document or the market to value, and goes uncounted in public health data, which in my province is limited to select high-risk groups, healthcare workers, and frontline social services. It is an invisible and intangible infection, with the potential to be both personally and economically costly.

The “intangible shift” is an economic trend in which growth and prosperity are driven by intangible assets, such as data, expertise, branding, and marketing, instead of traditional tangible assets such as buildings, equipment, and product inventories. The equipment needed to design, test, produce, and distribute a vaccine are tangible; the patent for it and the research and ideas behind it, are not. At the time of writing this, our global economy rests either on the development of a vaccine, reliable and widespread testing and treatment, or on creating safe physical distances in public and private space, such as spreading out passengers on transit and in planes, and limiting customers in restaurants and shops. In brick-and-mortar commerce and services whose business models previously relied on operating as close to capacity and full productivity as possible, we may need to slow things down.

Beyond layoffs and furloughs, the main dividing line in our labour market right now is whether your work can be done online or still needs to be done in person. It is intangible assets—in particular software, websites, and data, and the tangible hardware and infrastructure that support them—that are helping many workers continue to work from home, pay their rent, and stay housed. They are helping businesses reach customers without violating business closure rules, helping students to stay in touch with their classmates and teachers; helping doctors, nurses, and public health staff check on remote patients; and helping us all stay connected with family and friends, and stay updated on public health announcements and policy changes. It is also what enables contact tracing apps and other tech-based surveillance approaches to contain the virus. However, as work, education, and civic and social life move online, those without home internet, the now vital personal assets of home computers or smartphones, and the digital literacy to use them, are at risk of being sidelined or shut out entirely.

In Canada we do not know yet, and may never know, the full demographics of who gets sick, who is diagnosed, and who survives COVID-19. Public health authorities have released limited case data, despite calls for demographic, and in particular race-based breakdowns, and testing eligibility varies between each province and territory. But we know that there will be stark inequalities in who holds on to their employment and shelters in place to limit their exposure, who has lost work, and who is still working outside of the home.

According to mobile device location data released by Google, movement to and from workplaces has dropped 44 percent nationally. New York Times analysis found that nineteen of the 20 neighbourhoods with the lowest percentage of positive tests have been in wealthy ZIP codes. In Canadian prisons, where inmate wages are as low as $5.25 per day, advocates and the media are sounding the alarm on the lack of soap, hand sanitizer, and other basic supplies to comply with public health protocols.

At my day job, we recently looked at which occupations were at high risk of disease exposure and required working in close proximity to other people. Many of the high-risk non-healthcare jobs that are still deemed essential and require in-person labour are low income, including store clerks, delivery drivers, and other services and trades. Many are in precarious or low-wage employment situations, which puts pressure on workers who may not be able to afford to quit, and who would not be eligible for income support if they walked off the job. Today, less than half of renters have a month of savings or assets to cover rent and living expenses, a state that is particularly concerning at a time when public health guidelines strongly encourage people to stay in their homes and many advocates are calling for a rental freeze or suspension alongside the suspension of provincial eviction hearings.

The concept of “intangible assets” looks at firms in a digitizing economy, but I cannot stop thinking about the impacts on workers. Even prior to the pandemic, much of the labour of producing “intangible assets” was invisible, not in the feminist theory sense of un(der) valued care work, domestic, and emotional labour, but through technology, business, and employment practices that hide or downplay paid labor from the consumer, the client, the investor, and the public.

Labour is hidden behind an illusion of play or passion, such as devotion to the cause, passion for a product or service, or the playful, misleading job titles of the 2010s, such as Customer Success Gurus, Innovation Sherpas, and Brand Warriors. Labour is hidden by the shift to contracts, gig work, and outsourcing companies shed functions and employees, and in the bifurcated pay scales and working conditions of tech companies  and their outsourced cleaning staff, chefs, security guards, and content moderators. Labour is hidden by layers of globalization that separate the production and  extraction of resources from a product’s sale or use, such as the billions of gallons of water needed to cool data centres or the mined metals and elements that make a smartphone. Labour is hidden in the supposed effortlessness of modern viral marketing, the labour of influencers and employees encouraged to “live the brand”. Labour is hidden in dropshipping business models, such as mattress companies that deliver directly to your door in a box, and food delivery services that hide the labour of cooking and running a restaurant. Labour is hidden through buzzwords that turn work into a lifestyle, in which Airbnb is “house-sharing” and Uber is “car-sharing”, underpinned by economic trends that make owning assets out of reach for many.

In the pandemic, most of the white-collar workers whose labour used to be hidden as devotion, passion, or play are secluded in our houses, producing virtual outputs such as software or knowledge. Barring technical difficulties or lack of internet access, this work can easily be done remotely. Our labour shifts online and outside of the public sphere, empty of the rituals of dressing for work, commuting, and the public display of effort and workism in the office.

Outside, many workers are still going to work, either because their jobs are frontline crisis support for the pandemic (healthcare workers, pharmacists, etc.), because their workplaces are deemed essential services—an evolving list that varies provincially and can include food production and delivery, car rentals, dry cleaners, pet stores, mining, and construction—or because they cannot afford to lose income or quit and lose their toehold in a collapsing labour market. In a 2015 lecture at the Croatian Academy of Fine Arts, Dr. Ursula Huws, a Professor of Labour and Globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, described this as a contingent workforce “managed by global companies to provide the social reproductive labour for the slightly more privileged members of the working class in order to enable them to work longer hours”. Grocery delivery services are overwhelmed, scheduling weeks in advance, and small business owners are doing the work of converting their once in-person services online or by delivery, including cafes converting to take-out meals, virtual physiotherapy and exercise, guided bang trims, and alcohol and coffee deliveries. In the early days of this illness and recovery, while I was under strict isolation, this network of gig work and low-wage work kept me fed and well-supplied, along with help from friends and family.

It is work that has become increasingly imperative to feed and supply the large number of people in self-isolation, quarantine, or caregiving, or with the luxury to shelter in place and disposable income to spend. It has become increasingly invisible as a significant chunk of the population stays in their homes, serviced remotely and through contactless delivery. There is a real risk that, hidden from the public and the media eye, working conditions in these frontline jobs may decline as the risk of being at work rises, and that those of us who rely on it will lose touch even further with the working conditions of our neighbours and service providers. To help address this, a number of labour advocacy groups and unions have called for improved workplace health and safety practices, including access to personal protective equipment, reducing customer crowding, alternating shifts, and other operational changes.

Everywhere, care work and social reproduction labour happens mainly behind closed doors, much of it unpaid. It happens in the single and multi-person households under quarantine or recovering at home; in contactless deliveries between friends, neighbours, and mutual aid groups; online among loved ones and new open forums such as choirs, virtual club nights, and conferences; and in long-term care facilities, shelters, and in the hospitals where, in some countries, families are no longer allowed to visit, even for births or deaths. Some of it is virtual and remote, invisible except to the recipient and the companies that build the software we use to video into each other’s lives. Some of it is in person and in close quarters; care work that spills out from our homes and into our makeshift offices: intergenerational households trying to keep each other healthy, children interrupting video calls with toys scattered in the background, the labour of education now somehow happening at the same time and in the same space as our paid jobs.

First used by Dr. Kathleen Kuehn and Dr. Thomas F. Corrigan (professors at the Victoria University of Wellington and California State University, San Bernardino), the term “hope labour” describes labour that is uncompensated and done in the hopes of future payoffs or opportunities. It is with hope labour that I have been taking care of myself in isolation, hopeful of a quick, or at least successful recovery. All of us, if we are lucky enough to have homes and clean running water, do the hope labour of washing our hands and keeping our distance to prevent the disease from spreading to our neighbours and overwhelming our healthcare system, as much as our jobs and our health will allow.

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