What key work really means

While economic activity slowed down during the Covid-19 crisis, accumulation of wealth continues for capitalists at the cost of key workers’ health and wellbeing, writes Notes From Below

October 8, 2020 · 7 min read
‘Thank you NHS – To all Key Workers – Thank You!’ by ell brown is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It hardly needs to be repeated that the Covid-19 crisis has turned society upside down. We will not go back to ‘normal’ – whatever that is. This crisis has changed the organisation of contemporary capitalism and the coming economic crisis will wreak havoc across the economy.

We are standing on the precipice of mass unemployment. This has been slowed by furlough, with the state spending an estimated £25 billion on the scheme. However, as the lockdown begins to ease, many workers are set to find that their jobs no longer exist, with more than 50 per cent of employers planning to not rehire furloughed workers, and only a third saying they will. At the same time, there has been increased talk of so-called ‘key workers’ during Covid-19. For many commentators, it is almost as if these workers came into being to support everyone else during the crisis.

Dead labour, living labour

The state provides a definition of key worker. Or rather it provides a definition of work that ‘is critical to the coronavirus (Covid-19) response.’ This includes health and social care, education and childcare, key public services, local and national government, food and other necessary goods, public safety and national security, transport, and utilities, communication and financial services. These are the key sectors for the state in dealing with the pandemic. For example, one of the ‘key public services’ are ‘those responsible for the management of the deceased.’ Although this turn of phrase is probably the result of too many HR training sessions, it also brings to mind Marx’s description of capital as ‘dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’ The state, both with funeral care, furlough and otherwise, is offering to keep things running into order to help manage that dead labour of capital and the still living labour.

In the midst of Covid-19, work has become more visibly vampiric. For example, take the often-clapped for key workers in healthcare. There has been much talk of the NHS and the risks that many workers have taken. However, as one recent study found, rates of Covid-19 infection were much higher for cleaners and porters than healthcare workers. The study suggests that despite doctors working in higher risk areas like intensive care, a key difference was the type of personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as the fact that ‘black and asian staff were at greater risk of infection’ after control. The high risk for cleaners and porters is also a reflection of longer running trends of outsourcing within healthcare and the public sector. Before Covid-19, academic research found ‘empirical data revealing a clear link between outsourced cleaning services and increased spread of MRSA.’

Cleaners on the frontlines of the crisis

Cleaning work has historically been racialised in the UK. The majority of the cleaning workforce in London are migrant workers, often facing additional pressures of irregular status and language. For those of us who go into workplaces during the day, we may not even meet the cleaners who come in early in the morning or late at night to ensure the workplace is ready for the next day. Yet, as strikes of outsourced cleaners in hospitals and universities have shown, stopping of cleaning makes the results immediately visible.


Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic cleaners have been on the frontlines of the crisis. As the research shows, these workers are more likely to be infected while fighting to keep the infection at bay for others. Outsourcing companies have continued their callous approach to managing workers. As one cleaner explained, the company refused to provide any PPE, instead trying to introduce worse terms and conditions. After pressure from workers, they agreed to provide PPE. However they only provided a single bottle of hand sanitiser, expected to cover the entire building.

Cleaners, security, and other facilities workers have been forced to continue working during the crisis. Empty workplaces need upkeep and maintenance. For many cleaners in central London, while the workplace may be empty, getting there means two or three bus journeys. Transportation has proven deadly for many workers.

Between health and survival

The crisis has also laid bare an important aspect of the gig economy. In times of crisis, this model benefits the platforms even more. They do not need to sack workers, furlough them, or organise different working arrangements. As one Uber driver explained: ‘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 survival has been a real one throughout the economy. Gig workers are not guaranteed survival, even if they risk their health.

Of course, much like with the sector as a whole, the situation of gig economy workers is a particularly stark expression of more general tendencies. A supermarket worker pointed out: ‘I’ve worked through Covid-19 putting myself at risk. Have you seen the profits that they’re predicting? They offered me a small bump in pay and a slightly higher in-store discount. What have they done to get all that money?’ While the system overall might be in crisis, this does not mean that capitalists stop raking in the profits. It is workers, so called ‘key-workers’, who pay the bill with their labour, their jobs, and their wellbeing.

Winston Churchill famously described how Lenin was smuggled back into Russia ‘in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus.’ In a recent interview, Gigi Roggero has argued that this metaphor can help to guide the task of the militant:

We must hold back the force which spreads the plague in our own body and accelerate the bacteria produced by class struggle in the body of our enemy … Conflict must therefore function as a plague in the enemy and as a vaccine for us, a controlled inoculation of poison to reinforce our organism.

Key areas of resistance

At Notes from Below, we are beginning the diagnosis. The next step is to identify what key work really means, not in the context of managing the pandemic, but in how we can find leverage against capital. This means undertaking inquiries with workers who have worked through the pandemic, those who are now going back to work, and those who find they have no work to go back to.

Yes, we stand on the precipice of an economic crisis without comparison. Whatever definition we go with, work is still key to capitalism, as the crisis has highlighted. Now is the time to talk about organising and politics in the workplace. It is the time to turn key workers, and key sectors, into key areas of struggle and resisting. It means taking risks, experimenting, and finding new ways to fight back.

Notes from Below is a socialist publication and collective


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