Around the world, workers in what have been deemed "essential services" are tirelessly trying to keep the coronavirus pandemic in check and to keep us all going in the meantime. These are the nurses, farmworkers, grocery clerks, truck drivers and teachers, whose backs many of us stand on so that we can engage in our "social distancing".
And guess what - an eight or, perhaps, 10-hour shift in a grocery store, stocking shelves was not a particularly pleasant experience before the coronavirus shocked the world into realising that these essential workers exist.
The definition of essential services varies by country but, typically, the same occupations tend to make the list.
In California - Monterey county specifically - farmworkers have been told that they are exempt from the shelter-in-place order and are expected to continue working in the fields.
This means there is no social distancing for farmworkers.
The message is clear - if you are labouring in the fields in California, where most of the US's fruits and vegetables originate, then you have to go to work, no matter if a virus infects thousands, daily. To make matters worse, some estimate that between 50 percent and 75 percent of the close-to-three-million people who work in the fields are undocumented immigrants, which makes them subject to detention and possible deportation. Their labour is also poorly paid, with an average salary between $15,000 and $18,000 a year. Remember the Braceros, the farmworkers of Mexican origin who were recruited during World War II to labour in the US. This programme was initially crafted as an emergency measure, which began in 1942, to ensure the supply of food to the American population during wartime. Wages were set prior to the workers' arrival, as was their lodging and labour conditions, essentially ensuring that they had no representation and no way to voice complaints.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron declaredthose who work in the food industry - grocery store workers included - to be essential. Were these workers similarly appreciated by the government before the coronavirus came to France? Not really - Macron orchestrated a labour reform that took a knife to the industry, leading stores such as the supermarket chain, Carrefour, to lay off thousands of people just a couple of years ago. Those still working, because they are expected to do so, are doing so for longer periods of time than before because, during his tenure, their president has given companies greater powers to dismiss workers and to set the payments in cases of unfair dismissal.
In the United Kingdom. There, it is the workers in the "key industries" who keep the economy going. Looking at healthcare especially, the country's already understaffed National Health Service - as a result of 10 years of government austerity policies - is being forced by the coronavirus outbreak to take on thousands of unexpected patients. And in the UK, more than 13 percent of people working in healthcare are foreign nationals. To add insult to injury, these are people who have had to endure arguably racist remarks by the country's prime minister which have mocked darker-skinned, foreign-born, working people.
While in Italy Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that his government was going to toughen the existing measures to tackle the coronavirus epidemic ravaging the country. As a result, everything would need to shut down. "The government's decision is to close down — on the whole national territory — every industrial activity that isn't strictly necessary and crucial to grant us essential services," said Conte.
A list of about 80 industries that would be exempt from the rule was circulated by the government the next day, and it was later expanded to 97 sectors, including aerospace, defense and the production of agricultural machinery. All companies were allowed to appeal to their local prefect to be granted authorization to continue their activities.To many workers and trade unions, this sounded dangerous.
Massimo Dicanosa, a worker at TE Connectivity in Collegno, a small town on the outskirts of Turin, said that tension started mounting among his colleagues as the nation enacted strict containment measures to tackle the epidemic but workers still needed to show up at the factory.
"We are bombarded with messages telling us to stay home, our families are home, children are home, and those who need to leave the house are not safe," he said.The creeping fear is to infect your family at home, said Dicanosa, who works in the moulding department at the factory. And that fear mounts regardless of health and safety measures that companies might implement."There can be asymptomatic people who have no way to know if they are infected with the coronavirus. At the factory we have our temperature checked, but if I have no symptoms then we've got a problem and the issue becomes too big, it goes beyond the single company," he told DW.
Maria Cristina Terrenati from the secretariat at Fim-Cisl, the trade union representing Italian metalworkers, said she has been receiving calls from workers in smaller factories who said they were not protected from exposure to the virus on their factory floors. "They say distancing is not respected, that they don't have hand sanitizer. But then, when we tried to ask where they were calling from, they wouldn't dare tell us," said Terrenati.