Between COVID-19, adverse weather, and tube strikes, we have now become somewhat accustomed to sudden demands to stay at home and avoid travelling when possible – especially to work.
Thankfully, the development of hybrid working has made us highly adaptable to such orders. Schools have developed apps and online teaching tools; many workers have the necessary equipment and a designated space to work from in their home. For many, the habits created over the past two years can allow sudden demands to stay at home to have a minimal impact on their mental and physical health as well as their workload. Indeed, many have found benefits of now being able to work from home (‘WFH’) when they did not before.
However, we tend to forget too quickly that staying home and earning money is not a possibility for everyone. Deemed essential to the functioning of society, first sector, utility, health, social care, and food supply chain workers have been continuously required to go to work, even as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed or the country witnessed wind speeds as high as 122 mph.
A focus on who is actually affected by these stay-at-home orders is needed to understand how events such as the pandemic and natural disasters keep overwhelmingly increasing social inequalities, especially along education levels and in the labour market.
While WFH tends to favour male, older, well-educated, and well-paid employees, key workers tend to be the lowest paid and disproportionally made up of people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
This has introduced a new axis of inequality in our society: those who have the capacity, freedom, and option to work from home as opposed to those who don’t. Incidentally, the populations that fall on either side of this duality tend to mirror the racial and gender inequalities of society as a whole.
Over the past two years, those we have repeatedly sent to the frontlines of our society have tended to be the least privileged: mostly ethnic minorities and women. While their work is deemed essential, income inequalities between those who can work from home and those who can’t keep increasing.
Being unable to work from home creates a long list of short-term hardships for workers, which can range from disproportionate fatality rates (which are already higher among certain ethnic minority groups) to the increased risk of having to face violence and discrimination (which is also higher for certain ethnic minority groups).
Particularly during the pandemic, public scapegoating of migrants, healthcare professionals and food workers from minority backgrounds rose exponentially. Those who did not have the option to stay home — therefore being faced with higher risk of exposure and transmission — somehow became subject to blame for the spread of the virus throughout the country.
Instead of providing an analysis of how the organisation of labour dramatically affected the most vulnerable, the media made shortcuts between minority communities and COVID rates that relied on pre-existing assumptions, which in turn compounded discriminatory behaviours towards them. As “key worker” slowly became synonymous with “minority”, there were dramatic consequences for the lives, safety, and health of communities that are often poor and non-White.
The situation is even worse for minority women, who are overrepresented in caring positions, still responsible for most of the housework, have to shoulder most of the added emotional labour caused by the pandemic, and still have to juggle with childcare as the rest of the world gets to work from home.
But, these are just the short-term consequences. Looking towards the future, the pandemic has already increased income inequality, socio-economic inequalities in education and skills, and intergenerational inequalities.
This, combined with the existing gap in education, skills, and income among racial and ethnic groups, paints a worrying picture of “working from home” ever being truly accessible to many marginalised communities, for whom breaking intergenerational patterns is becoming more and more out of reach.
As all the attention is now on the future of hybrid work, with such initiatives as the Right to Request Remote Work Bill appearing in Ireland, it seems that once again minority ethnic, low income, and vulnerable populations are pushed out of the conversation, even as their poverty levels are rising and their working conditions are overwhelmingly ignored.
Even as working from home seems to be taking the world by storm, we must remember that our society cannot function without its millions of key workers, and make every effort possible to ensure that all types of employment benefit from a diverse workforce. JAN Trust works to raise awareness of intersectional inequalities affecting our marginalised communities, which is why we encourage rethinking a labour market that has led to health, social care, food and necessary goods workers to be among the lowest income in the country, while simultaneously often being the only accessible profession to vulnerable groups.