COVID pandemic revealed category of ‘necrolabour’ – workers whose job value outweighs their own right to life

COVID pandemic revealed category of ‘necrolabour’ – workers whose job value outweighs their own right to life

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a category of ‘necrolabour’ – workers whose labour value puts them at higher risk of death and who therefore need stronger legislative protections – an academic from the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures has argued.

In a new paper published by Global Labour Journal, Professor Sarah Waters, School of Languages, Cultures & Societies, examines UK and French government policies towards essential workers during the pandemic and introduces the concept of ‘Necrolabour’ to refer to a growing category of essential workers – many from socially marginalised backgrounds – with lower pay and poorer conditions than the average worker.

Employment rights and risks of death

Professor Waters outlines how the UK and French governments followed a similar strategy of categorising groups of essential workers according to their labour value and obliging them to continue working at risk to their own lives. However, her research has found that pre-existing differences between the UK and France in employment rights and social protection meant that UK essential workers were placed at comparatively higher risk of death compared to their French counterparts.

For instance, in France the Labour Code meant that workers could choose not to work when ill, whereas in the UK, the absence of decent sick pay and employment protection meant that people were often forced to work even when ill in order to earn the means to survive.

Professor Waters points to a study by Melissa Matz which shows how essential workers in England and Wales had consistently higher deaths rates than other groups throughout 2020, while non-essential workers were likely to have experienced fewer deaths. Social care occupations, including care workers and home carers, had the highest death rates for both men and women.

Sarah Waters, Professor of French Studies at the University of Leeds’ School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, said:

The idea that specific groups of workers are exposed to a greater risk of death in the service of their jobs is profoundly unjust. It is crucial that trade unions push for legislative changes to extend employment rights and social protections to all workers in order to reduce the risks of premature and avoidable death. At the same time, governments need to ensure that occupational health risks become a central focus of public policy. Without legislative changes to improve employment rights and social protection, the unnecessary deaths of socially marginalised workers in essential jobs are likely to persist in the post-pandemic economy.