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Care in Post-Covid-19 Societies

By Nina Sahraoui, author of Racialised Workers and European Older-Age Care

Like no other societal challenge, the Covid-19 pandemic uncovered our dependence on those who are now referred to as ‘essential workers’. Popular support and gratitude towards healthcare workers, refuse collectors and supermarket employees came to be symbolized by the daily round of evening applause performed in many cities from northern Italy to London to New York.  While the neoliberal order has long concealed the importance of care work by relegating it to marginalised, under-paid and unattractive sectors of the economy, the pandemic laid bare the vital role of healthcare workers, those attending patients in hospitals, but also those attending older persons in nursing homes. Here, I draw on my research into the experiences and trajectories of migrant and minority ethnic care workers in private nursing homes in London, Paris and Madrid published with Palgrave to sketch out a few thoughts around the place of care in European societies post-Covid-19. 

Care work is economically marginalised but this is not a fatality

Care-related jobs pertain to a segmented section of the labour market, with unattractive working conditions, low earnings and limited professional prospects in most European countries. To a large part, these prevailing conditions derive from gendered stereotypes whereby care is thought of as subjective and unproductive, features that do not score well within the dominant masculinist political economy of our societies driven by quantitative indicators. A sexist assumption underpins the marginalisation of care work: the difficult emotional labour that is part of care is assumed to be a natural skill for women. As a result, the emotional burden and the high responsibilities that are attached to care are concealed. Achieving better conditions and recognition of care work thus requires acknowledging the complexity of care workers’ emotional labour as a skill. 

Acknowledging racialised workers’ key role in nursing homes and healthcare through secure residency and protective labour rights 

Migrant and minority ethnic women, but also to a lesser extent racialised men, play a significant role in fulfilling Western societies’ labour needs in terms of care, particularly in large urban centres. Yet these labour needs remain unacknowledged within current migration and employment policies, and there are no legal pathways for migrating to the EU with the view of working in the care sector, since this profession is deemed ‘unskilled’. As a result, the sector relies on a ‘pool of workers’ constituted of students, asylum seekers, persons who reunited with their families and, importantly, migrant workers whose degrees are not formally recognised and who therefore cannot be employed in their former professions. 

The gravity and scope of the pandemic shed light on the crucial role played by healthcare professionals, and notably healthcare assistants – many of whom are migrants - who spend a lot of face-to-face time with patients and care home residents. Their rights as migrant workers need to be protected through secure residency rights and protective labour rights. Owing to this over-representation, migrant and minority ethnic workers were disproportionately on the front lines during the pandemic, and they were thus more exposed to Covid-19. In countries where ethnic statistics are available researchers documented that racialized workers suffered heavier infection rates and death tolls, as a result of social inequalities. 

No going back to ‘normal’: advocating for a renewed understanding of care-related activities 

A more just and sustainable society requires us to rethink the place of care and to centre our economic systems on life-sustaining activities rather than taking them for granted. Prior to the pandemic, the invisibilisation of our interdependency through the marginalisation of care work facilitated the reproduction of gendered and racialised inequalities. Now that the pandemic triggered some symbolic acknowledgement by politicians and increased public awareness as to care workers’ vital contribution, conditions are ripe for profound reforms towards a more caring society, if political will follows. 

Acknowledging the importance of care activities could start with a) granting racialised care workers more stable residency rights and more protective labour rights instead of the precarious administrative and employment statuses that they currently navigate, b) re-thinking the professionalisation of care by recognising the skilled dimensions of emotional labour rather than equating care with technical acts and quantitative indicators, c) ensuring better working conditions by taking into account the specificities of care, and notably the time necessary to ensure good care relationships, in contrast to the reduction of care to a marketized profit-making activity that supposes continuous cost-cutting and time pressures, d) and finally fostering a public debate around the distribution of care responsibilities in society so that gender roles can be more deeply and sustainably redefined.

Nina Sahraoui is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Paris Centre for Sociological and Political Research (CRESPPA), CNRS. Nina is also affiliated with the Chair ‘Exile and Migrations’ at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris (FMSH). Previously, Nina was Postdoctoral Research Associate at the European University Institute within the EU Border Care project and conducted research on the politics of maternity care among undocumented migrants on the peripheries of the European Union. Nina completed her PhD in the framework of a Marie Sklodowska- Curie Fellowship at London Metropolitan University and published this research with Palgrave Macmillan in Racialised Workers and European Older-Age Care: From Care Labour to Care Ethics (2019).