Work in times of covid

How did workers and employees experience periods of confinement and health crisis?? This makes the hierarchy visible, instills fear, makes it oscillate between intensification of work and valorization.

At the end of March 2020, two weeks after the announcement of France's confinement, a Dares study estimates that half of employees are no longer at work (unemployed, on leave, on sick leave or on childcare leave) and that the other half is divided equally between teleworking and on-site work. The tensions generated by teleworking have often been noted by sociologists and journalists from the written press. The experience of employees who have continued to work outside, however, appears less well documented, particularly that of second line employeespresented in public discourse as workers essential.

Cyrine Gardes' book is important for this: exploring popular experiences of the health crisis (p. 13), it gives the voice of workers and employees in the mass distribution and logistics sector, mostly unskilled, to make it clear what the impact of the pandemic has been on their working conditions, how this dramatic episode affected them in their personal lives, finally what they thought of the presentation as essential of their activity, of its highlighting, even though these employees have hardly seen their working conditions or their salary benefit from this sudden recognition. These so-called essential workers, the author renames them employees continuing to work on site or off site regardless of restrictions (p. 18). Certainly less convenient, this formulation nevertheless has the merit of thwarting the tricks of public discourse.

A remote survey

The survey is based on a corpus of fourteen interviews conducted between December 2020 and March 2021 as part of a post-doctoral contract with the Research Foundation of the French Red Cross. The strong health restrictions explain why these interviews were mainly conducted by telephone. The remote survey makes it possible to diversify places of residence and work. The jobs held are those of cashier, line manager, department manager, employee at the security checkpoint, after-sales service employee, delivery driver, etc. Contacted via the union organizations, five men and nine women agreed to participate in the survey. Half exercise local union responsibilities.

The book is divided into six chapters examining personal experiences of the health crisis and gradually moving towards collective experiences. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on reporting the outbreak of the disease and its consequences on employees. Feelings of fear emerge from the interviews, to the point that they lead the author to speak about emotional violence (p. 28). In professional settings that do not prepare to manage such a crisis situation, fears are communicated and amplified between colleagues. the fear of getting sick yourself is added to the fear of infecting loved ones. In addition to the dismay, the interviews reveal DIY measures to protect yourself (improvised disinfection practices, distancing from loved ones). These DIY projects add fear during the first weeks of the pandemic when they are the only protections available while everyone fears their low effectiveness. If the pandemic causes anxiety among employees who continue to come on site, it also suddenly transforms their working conditions. I was smacked, says Camille, 26, temporary order picker, testifying, like the other respondents, to the intensification of work to respond, with reduced staff, to the demands of a customer forced to turn to delivery services and large surfaces. In a situation where urgency prevails, management takes control in a more authoritarian manner over the organization of work: changes to positions and schedules are necessary without further discussion. The pressure of work is doubled by that of domestic life which requires women to do additional daily work. The interviews corroborate findings from statistical surveys showing that on-site employees saw their domestic burden weigh more than for those working remotely (p. 62).

The valorization speeches

Chapters 3 and 4 question the reception of the public discourse of valorization and the Covid bonus announced in April 2020. Do employees who have continued to work on site feel essential? The interviews attest to a feeling of usefulness: facing the pandemic symbolically rewards junior employees. It’s true that deep down, I was a little proud of myself, a little, says a cashier (p. 77). But recognition also rings false. The discourse of valorization appears to the surveyors as an end result of the efforts made and primarily intended for doctors and nurses. The surveyors reject certain aspects of it: We only do our job says Valrie, 61, manager of the bakery area of ​​a supermarket (p. 79). She refuses the circumstantial heroism of employees like her. from his eyes, this speech hides the constraints of work, it is like a balm to make them bear. Essential for whom?asks Amlie, 51 years old, cashier, before concluding: essential for money. That's all. It's a. While the shops had to close, the supermarkets remained open despite the greater risks (more people, more crossings, more contamination). It's all about the money, she says again (p. 86). Under these conditions, the Covid bonus, born from the extension to employees continuing to work on site of the exceptional purchasing power bonus (or Macron Prime) created by the Government following the mobilization of the Yellow Vests, appears profoundly unfair in the eyes of the salaried employees. Replenishing tight budgets a little, it certainly brings satisfaction. But by the modesty of the sums paid (far from the thousand euros announced), it demonstrates the great gap between the public discourse of valorization and real actions, between public recognition of the work and the realities of it.

The role of collectives

Finally, chapters 5 and 6 underline the importance of work collectives to face the pandemic, to hold on morally, to continue doing their work, but also to defend ourselves collectively. The pandemic has disrupted ordinary working relationships, particularly due to health protocols imposing degraded relationships on employees, a source of conflict situations between them. The work collectives nevertheless resisted the ordeal and functioned as supports in the crisis. They were a regulatory element of the emotional violencethey fostered solidarity in the face of the intensification of work, they solidified feelings of belonging, a shared condition, a We workers kept active on site against all odds, a We opposed to them directions but also confines both more protected from illness and not assigned to menial service tasks. By repositioning individuals in relation to work, the health crisis makes inequalities and hierarchies visible.writes Cyrine Gardes (p. 118), which nourish class-based social opposition.

Can the pandemic nevertheless make conflict (p. 120) and become a vector of collective action? Interviews reveal numerous indications of rapprochements between management and employees induced by the health emergency, which contribute to weakening the position of the latter in the face of the latter. This weakening results mainly from the deterioration of the social dialogue framework: exchanges took place remotely when they were not reduced or eliminated. However, employees do not appear more submissive: in several companies, conflicts take place to denounce the alteration of working conditions, the poor consideration of health at work or even the conditions for granting the Covid bonus. Or to say the need for an increase in wages for workers at the bottom of the income scale. The gap between the public discourse of valorization and the real condition given, as the author writes, additional legitimacy to claim a better share in the distribution of added value (p. 143).

Cyrine Gardes' book reveals the realities of processes of domination at work during an event like that of the Covid pandemic. Three years after the event of the health crisis, we would however have liked to know what the more lasting effects were on the situation of the employees encountered: what traces left on them and on professional places as well emotional violence that the intensification of working conditions; just as we would have liked to know if the conflict in the face of the injustice of the situations experienced could have strengthened in one way or another.

We all the more regret the absence of feedback on the survey, in the form of an update of the stories of the surveyed, as the analyzes proposed carry a combative vision of the working classes (no doubt partly linked to the over-representation of the surveyed holding union mandates) and of a bet on the future, as the last sentence of the work clearly demonstrates: the pandemic has reinforced inequalities but it has also made them more tangible and glaring. Reappropriates, the category of essential employees therefore also has a liberating side (p. 150). Re-interviewing the women and men contacted during the health crisis would have made it possible to show what such evidence has more lastingly changed in their practices and perceptions. But Cyrine Gardes' book documents with precision and clarity the working situations of subordinate employees in a health crisis, more than other situations left in the shadows during the pandemic.