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Accepted Paper:

Essential Dispensability: frontline workers, pandemic labor, and the new meaning of occupational health  
Livia Garofalo (Data Society Research Institute)

Paper short abstract:

This paper ethnographically reflects on what it means to do “essential work” when workers are considered at once essential and dispensable. The pandemic has shed light on the importance of occupational health, while exacerbating inequalities and worker exploitation.

Paper long abstract:

Frontline workers have been praised as heroic during the pandemic, while having to report to work under less than ideal conditions. High rates of infection, different employment and national policies, and continuous emergence COVID-19 variants have increased the vulnerability of these workers to the virus, surveillance, and socio-economic precarity. COVID mitigation measures like temperature checks, contact tracing, and vaccination coexist have been implemented in workplaces with other forms of monitoring of productivity with worker retaliation. Drawing from interviews with essential workers in meatpacking, warehouses, grocery stores, and manufacturing in the United States and medical workers in Argentina and Italy, I show how the pandemic has made evident how forms of worker control are often not accompanied by actual health monitoring and COVID surveillance. I argue that different forms of frontline work have their own contextual specificity, while sharing a common feature, essential dispensability, that can be the basis for collective organizing. The conditions of pandemic labor have therefore indeed created opportunities for new and creative forms of worker solidarity, while at the same time reiterating the need for basic worker protections like paid sick leave, hazard pay, and contractual stability.

Panel P037
Anthropological perspectives on the transformative potential of the pandemic on work and health rights.
  Session 1 Tuesday 26 July, 2022, -