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CAPITALISM, WORKER EXPLOITATION AND THE "NORMAL" WE CAN'T RETURN TO

Worker Exploitation, Capitalism, and The “Normal” We Can’t Return To

In a capitalist system, “normal” means worker mistreatment and exploitation, and this disproportionately impacts already marginalized groups. 

By Princess Avianne Charles

“Normal” was considered many things but it certainly was not good enough. For many, what was considered normal was mentally and physically draining, it revoked them of their access to basic necessities and it rationalized sacrificing their well-being to meet their needs. The pandemic has made several things more clear to us and the poor treatment of workers is one of them. What has been happening before and during the pandemic in various workplaces displays the layers of worker exploitation and mistreatment, which have a greater impact on marginalized groups and their ongoing fight for survival. What can be considered normal in such workplaces are the acts of disenfranchisement, verbal abuse, continuous microaggressions, limited accessibility, and employees being overworked with little to no consideration for their well-being. 

Marginalized groups, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), women, disabled people, formerly incarcerated folks, undocumented migrants, and refugees, are some of the key groups that face worker mistreatment and exploitation, and where aspects of their identities intersect, it increases the risk of exposure to harm. Some of the most demanding fields—such as healthcare, hospitality and tourism, the food industry, and the retail sector—are occupied by persons who regularly endure discrimination and are expected to remain tolerant in order to be employed. 

The pandemic continues to demonstrate how marginalized groups are disproportionately affected in and out of the workplace. Health inequity is a key contributor to the availability of healthcare and other services for such groups, placing them at an even greater risk for both contracting COVID-19 and experiencing serious complications related to it. In looking at the relation to risk and how marginalized groups are affected, there are factors that can drastically increase their exposure and morbidity. Those factors include access to healthcare, financial constraints, housing, and occupation–factors that are regulated by racial capitalism

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There is a direct link to racial capitalism and health inequity, as racial capitalism creates an environment where BIPOC become more susceptible to diseases—due to the limited availability of resources. Workers who work in environments such as grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, retail stores, and public transport have increased risks as their exposure is not limited to other employees because it must also include the general public on a daily basis. 

Capitalism heightens the socioeconomic, systemic, and work-related issues that affect such groups daily, and no exceptions are made during the pandemic. Those issues shape the conditions they have been forced to live and work in, associating their value to their labor rather than their well-being and needs. For workers, they face a wider range of exposure to health risks in order to provide as much profit as possible. 

Health inequity can manifest on the basis of racism, xenophobia, sexism, ableism, and other prejudices, and these factors can also influence how employees are treated at work. Discriminatory acts and prejudices are treated as the norm in workplace culture and this all remains at the mental, physical and emotional expense of those directly affected. In environments that are already tasking due to their common roles and functions, marginalized persons are also affected by the conditions they’re placed in which can lead to over-exertion over time. These persons may also work in settings that require them to work multiple shifts, or even do the work of multiple people, to accommodate the workload which means that they are more susceptible to burnout and exhaustion. 

Both individuals and businesses globally have been affected by the implementation of new measures. Lockdown measures have been enforced to reduce exposure and spread—resulting in businesses reducing work hours, implementing closures, and introducing opportunities to work from home where applicable. Now, new variants have emerged, with four classified as variants of concern—Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. The variants have shown an increase in transmission, reinfection rates, hospital admissions, and worsened morbidity in some cases. The Delta variant, in particular, has created an additional surge in cases and is the predominant variant in many countries.

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This information has influenced the decision-making processes in sectors for reopening. A more transmissible variant means an increased level of risk for persons in public spaces, especially for workers with long shifts. As a result, safety mandates are further extended to slow the spread—exacerbating the current effects of job loss and wage reductions. On the other hand, in sectors where reopening remains in motion, this affects workers’ safety and stability. A more contagious variant can set back current progress due to increased cases, reduced productivity, and less revenue. If an employee contracts the virus this can lead to temporary closure in a department or even the entire company for isolation. 

With fluctuations in case numbers over time, some businesses resort to letting go of workers or permanent closure. All of this not only impacts the longevity of businesses but the survival of individuals, especially in marginalized groups. When there is an increase in job losses and wage reductions, this only exacerbates the current problems for their livelihood. Persons then have to seek alternative options including financial aid and food services, both of which are not guaranteed. 

Prior to the pandemic, many employees were already on the brink of job loss due to their response to a harmful working environment. With all that’s happening now, there is great concern on what will be expected of employees who return to work in any capacity. With measures that have changed the usual working schedule, there is a possibility that workers who do stay may be tested beyond their means for their loyalty and gratitude. The notion that one, in these times, must be grateful to the point that they’re tolerant of mistreatment in the workplace is a tool used to guilt trip and manipulate employees. This is the “normal” they are making every effort to return to; a normal that was already exclusive, oppressive, and harmful in a variety of ways. 

Despite the current situations at hand, what we are seeing become more prevalent is employees taking greater strides to demand a change in how the workplace has operated. From wages, conditions, and even work from home opportunities; workers are showing that a change must occur. Legislation such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act can reinforce regulations but employees are not always made aware of them. It is imperative that not only should there be education on labor laws and provision of an inclusive policy, but that employees should feel safe to take the necessary steps in reporting without having to first weigh the risk for doing so.

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Marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted in and out of the workplace. While trying to adjust to the vast changes outside of the workplace, little is being done to provide flexibility, stability and comfort within. This is without a doubt more cause for additional measures to be put in place to create better working environments instead of returning to what shouldn’t have been normalized. In essence, capitalist exploitation in its entirety must be eliminated entirely, as it increases the risks for one’s livelihood. 

It must be centered around the safety and health of all persons, attentively listening to the experiences and views of those affected the most. When people return to their work schedules and environments, it should not mean going back to what was harmful to them. It should mean employers creating healthier spaces, recognizing them as persons with financial, health, and social needs–rather than expendables, who are only considered for how much they provide. Their survival requires the capitalistic and dehumanizing sense of normalcy to be disregarded at all levels. 

Princess Avianne Charles, also referred to as “Avianne”, is a Trinidadian writer and blogger. With experience in the field of Occupational Safety and Health, she promotes safer spaces and advocates for human rights both in and out of the workplace.

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