This year, just like last year, May Day was very different from what it used to be in the past. Workers traditionally thronged the largest open spaces in the country to celebrate the day dedicated to them. For many years, political parties used this holiday to show their commitment to the working classes.
Undoubtedly, COVID-19, with the medical and social restrictions that it entails, was the immediate cause of very subdued May Day celebrations. But the long-term effect of COVID on the future of work will be much more profound than the lack of celebrations on Workers’ Day.
It would be a mistake to oversimplify the causes behind the phenomenon of ever-changing working conditions. But the pandemic has just accelerated future-of-work trends.
In one of the most visible changes, for example, most offices have had to go remote over the last several months. Employers have had to deal with many other logistical challenges while workers have faced equally difficult obstacles in trying to manage work and home-schooling or other caring responsibilities at the same time.
Homeworking will never totally replace the traditional physical workplace. But it will undoubtedly become a permanent alternative to the conventional work routine that saw workers spending hours commuting to and from work every day.
Of course, the pandemic has created a stark divide between people whose work can be done from home and those whose work constrains them to be physically present. Another division has opened between those whose homes provide a suitable environment for work and those who face substantial problems because of lack of space, childcare responsibilities and other distractions.
Indeed, perhaps the most dramatic effect of the pandemic on the world of work has been the diverse impact on different types of workers. While most employers seem to have done their best to retain as many of their workers as possible thanks to the government’s support schemes, many workers just fell through the safety net. Small self-employed workers, those working in the submerged economy, and many in the gig economy faced great insecurity about their prospects of earning a living. On the other hand, those who enjoy the guarantee of a public service job for life face no such insecurity.
It is time to rewrite the social contract to ensure a more equitable burden-sharing whenever a major crisis threatens the livelihoods of the most vulnerable workers.
Many businesses benefitted substantially thanks to taxpayers’ money being pumped into their operations at a time when their turnover was knocked down by the pandemic.
On the other side of the fence, it is time for the government to give serious thought to reducing the precarious working conditions of the most vulnerable workers at a time of economic slowdown.
The government should not shy away from making businesses pay their share towards the creation of a disaster recovery fund, which would be financed when business conditions are favourable.
The fight against COVID-19 benefitted some at the expense of others. Children were asked to suspend their education and workers to forgo their income, while the victims of the disease have belonged overwhelmingly to the older generation.
Even if the Minister of Finance insists that there will be no increase in taxation, sacrifices are going to be inevitable. Our society must show that it will offer restitution to those who have carried the heaviest burdens of the pandemic.
There is no reason why wealth rather than work should not be taxed to ensure that social justice prevails in the post-pandemic workplace.
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