An Economy of Care: Why workers need more than a return to mere normality

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An Economy of Care: Why workers need more than a return to mere normality

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Italy, like many other countries, was hit by the COVID-19 wave while unprepared. But it reacted, and dealt with the emergency thanks mainly to the efforts of health, food, pharmaceutical, transport and logistics workers, and of cleaners and sanitation workers.

What issues did we face? First of all, that of workplace safety: PPE, physical distancing, adapting to different working conditions, deciding what were essential activities. Thanks to a significant mobilisation of unions, we reached two tripartite agreements, in March and April, defining essential activities, personal protections and rules on workplace safety. These agreements were included in the government emergency legislation.

Safety in the workplace is still a concern, and right now the risks linked to COVID-19 are adding up to an unfortunately high rate of accidents. This is why company-level and local committees keep bargaining, to ensure daily supervision to maintain focus on, and respect for the safety regulations.

Workers are also worried about the uncertainty of their prospects, in terms of job security and income.

In discussions with the government, some measures were defined to expand the cassa integrazione, or redundancy fund, to support self-employed workers and to suspend layoffs. We ask that these measures be extended for the rest of 2020.

To put the severity of the situation in perspective, the amount of hours of cassa integrazione logged during just the month of April in 2020 was the same used in an entire year during the 2008 global financial crisis.

Nevertheless, unemployment levels are on the rise, and the COVID crisis exposes the issues of job insecurity, “informal” work, and of fixed-term and on-call work.

One World: Global solidarity for recovery and resilience by, Sharan BurrowGeneral Secretary, ITUC

One World: Global solidarity for recovery and resilience by Sharan Burrows, General Secretary, ITUC

Inequality, poverty and exploitation are increasing, as are wages that do not allow a decent life.

The damage caused by neoliberal policies is clearly visible in relation to the right to work and the right to health. 

It should also not be overlooked that social protection systems are still not universal, even though they were already substantial in Italy and were strengthened during the pandemic. The recurring outbreaks prove that employers do not always understand that safety comes before profit.

We also obtained a partial – and likely still inadequate – decision to regularise migrant workers, particularly in domestic and agricultural jobs, but this does not include riders, drivers and gig workers.

It is likely that this crisis has not yet unfolded in all its severity. To imagine a way out, we must first tackle inequalities, from growing poverty to exclusion from skilled and decently paid jobs that affects mostly women and young people.

Unlike 10 years ago, Europe reacted promptly to the spread of the pandemic and has made different choices. But we are still at risk of going down paths that will lead to an unsuccessful recovery if we do not recognise the shortcomings that are at the root of the theory of growth and of the self-regulating market.

A mere return to normality – meaning a return to the status quo before COVID-19 – would not be the right answer. It would not reduce inequalities, the working poor or lack of access to education, nor would it tackle the fragility that all national systems have shown during this time.

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We must not go the route of indiscriminate subsidies to firms, more “flexible” and fixed-term work, less bargaining and lower wages, lower taxes and less welfare.

It would be a mockery of those workers that have been, and still are, on the frontlines to ensure that the population receives care and support.

Indeed, it is precisely the idea of care – first and foremost as an interpretation of universal rights to health and education – that brings into focus the role of collective bargaining, primarily at a sectoral level.

It is a matter of realising and putting into practice an economy of care: qualified work that must be recognised as such, performed safely and meaningfully valued. An economy of essential care for universal rights would also be a way to tackle the climate and environmental crises. It would be a choice that addresses the challenge of digitalisation by considering innovation as a necessary and useful tool that should be channeled into finding answers to the problems we face.

All these choices and answers should of course start in individual countries, but there must be some consistency between them. Undoubtedly, the current international division of labour undermines the necessity for each country to feel safe, and this crisis has shown that there needs to be a rethinking of the supply chains.

This economy will not be in opposition to that of industrial manufacturing or innovation; instead, it will direct and complement it, based on the concept that inequalities are not the consequence but rather the cause of the fragility of the system, and of its more and more frequent crises.

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