Race, class and Covid-19

The inextricable links between race, poverty and exploitation have been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic, writes Notes from Below

September 30, 2020 · 7 min read
Leicester garment workers have been particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Photo: Human Rights Committee

In July 2020, the government announced that, while it was relaxing lockdown across the UK, it was reimposing stricter measures on the Leicester area, which had seen a new spike in infections. Pundits were quick to blame ‘cultural’ factors for the new outbreak, a thinly-veiled code word for racists to point the finger at the city’s large Asian populations.

It did not take long, however, for information to surface that a much more likely source of the problem was the local garment factories. While the global garment industry has become increasingly concentrated in the global south for its cheap labour, many UK retailers continue to contract some production to ‘onshored’ factories because of the potential for fast turnaround. Rather than shipping finished clothing from Bangladesh, clothes produced in Leicester can be sent to customers within hours of being made.

Conditions in these sweatshops are grim. Not only are workers paid as little as £3.50 an hour but evidence has emerged that some were told to keep coming to work, even after they had tested positive for Covid-19. Even furloughed workers reported that they were told to continue work and threatened with not receiving government help if they failed to do so. This scenario is strikingly similar to that of northern Italian factories that were kept open despite rising infection rates earlier this year and are now believed to be a primary cause of the catastrophic spread of the disease in the country.

Capitalism needs our labour to function and accumulate wealth, even if it kills us.

Racialised patterns

The fact that these workers are largely Asian women is not irrelevant to this story, despite the way it has been used by racists. It is clear that the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the direct link between race, poverty, employment status and exposure to the disease. Black, Asian, and other racialised groups are overrepresented in poor and overcrowded housing as well as in low paid and highly casualised jobs.

These same groups are also overrepresented in the industries that were closed altogether during the pandemic. As a House of Commons briefing paper reported in July: ‘15 per cent of workers in the shutdown sectors … are from a BAME ethnic background, compared to 12 per cent of all workers’, while around ‘15 per cent of BAME respondents reported losing their jobs, compared to an estimated 8 per cent of white Britons’. Unemployment is likely to skyrocket as the furlough scheme ends, while the reopening of housing courts will see a dramatic spike in evictions. These processes will undoubtedly reproduce the same racialised patterns.

The pandemic is already creating a large racialised ‘surplus population’ of unemployed workers across Britain’s cities. These workers are desperate to find any way to make ends meet – and many will end up forming part of the labour force of Britain’s fastest expanding sectors: food-delivery and ride-hailing platforms. Platform workers were forced to accept low wages and dangerous conditions even before the pandemic. Now, the situation has deteriorated.

As one Uber driver told us: ‘I don’t have a choice. I have to pay for my car and all my other costs, so I’m losing money when I sit at home. But if I go out to work, I risk myself and my family.’ The choice between health and income has been a real one throughout the economy. Of course, gig workers are not guaranteed income, even if they risk their health. One courier said he could ‘spend a whole day waiting for an order’. Endangering himself, hoping to be able to make some money in the process.

Pandemic impacts

Alongside the platform economy, the expectation has also been set that some of the tens of thousands of newly-unemployed workers will be taken on in the supermarket sector and its extended supply chains. Early on in the pandemic, when workers in sectors like hospitality were being ejected from the workplace, huge numbers put their hopes on shelf stacking jobs. Notes from Below heard stories from security guards (who were often legally ‘self-employed’) of how they had received short texts from the irregular venues informing them they would not be needed for the next three months. As well as making up part of the 2.3 million people on the self-employment income support scheme, they headed to supermarkets in the hope of getting a job – only to find themselves amidst hundreds-strong crowds.

Again, as with platforms, the conditions in this sector have deteriorated during the crisis. Despite the existence of a supermarket workers’ union, USDAW, with nearly half a million workers and recognition agreements with Sainsbury’s and Tesco, supermarket workers have often found themselves on the frontline with little protection. Just as when GMB-organised Asda workers were forced to accept punitive contract changes in 2019 without so much as a day’s strike action, the crisis has increasingly confronted supermarket workers with the fact that their existing organisational structures are inadequate. The demonstrable failure of the major unions to move beyond passive ‘partnership’ with the sector bosses has shown that those who do manage to find re-employment during the crisis cannot rely on benevolent bureaucrats for protection. Only militant working-class self-organisation on the shopfloor – of the kind that has been so lacking in Britain over the past four decades – can protect workers from the worst impacts of the crisis.

Given that the working class is having to bear the burden of risk in this pandemic, it is not surprising that the infection and death rates have been so starkly higher in black and Asian communities. It doesn’t take a statistical overview to come to the conclusion that, as with the Leicester garment factories, poverty, exploitation, and race play a key part in making certain groups more vulnerable than others. This also raises important questions – and challenges – for the labour movement. While a walkout by Liverpool dockers in June in solidarity with Black Lives Matter points towards the possibilities of labour militancy addressing structural racism and oppression, it remains an isolated instance. The fight for emancipation from racism and capitalism is one struggle. But at the moment, it is not a struggle we are winning.

Notes from Below is a socialist publication and collective. This article originally appeared in issue #229 ‘No Return to Normal’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.

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