In the past four months, the COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally altered daily life in Scotland. As societies worldwide struggle to respond to a range of serious and enduring new problems, workers in Scotland and elsewhere have faced enormous changes to their working lives. As we now pass through – and hopefully beyond – the later phases of lockdown and restrictions continue to lift, which lockdown adjustments can we expect to revert, and which are now here for the long term? Discussion at the local, national and international level is now turning to the possibilities for a ‘new normal’. But is there anything ‘normal’ about this fundamental shift?
The lockdown has undoubtedly forced rapid changes to our working patterns and conditions, some of which were considered unthinkable in the time before. Flexible working, home working, the four-day work week, and proposals for a Universal Basic Income have been granted more legitimacy, as formerly ‘sensible’ and ‘normal’ ways of organising work and the economy under neoliberal capitalism begin to visibly collapse. But how might these changes impact on our rights, our safety, our personal and family lives, our privacy, and our mental and physical health in the long term? And how might we resist moves toward the more negative proposals, as we develop alternative strategies for collective action under changing restrictions.
In the time before the crisis hit, precarious and low-paid work was already a reality for thousands in Scotland. Many of these workers – such as those in the hospitality and non-essential retail sectors – were furloughed during the lockdown. With the furlough scheme expected to draw to a close over the coming months, which of these workers will have jobs to return to? Given the Scottish Government’s strict necessary rules around social distancing and the wearing of face coverings indoors, those returning to work in shops and pubs may have the added responsibility of ‘policing’ public health strategies by enforcing these regulations. But what resources have been made available as these changes become the new norm? And are workers being adequately supported?
With many in Scotland continuing from work from home for the foreseeable, what impact will the easing of lockdown have on those who are unlikely to return to their normal place of work? Stephen Caldwell shared his story of home working during the pandemic and his uncertainties about the future with Workers’ Stories back in June. As we enter phase three, what are the new boundaries between work and home life if your kitchen table has become not only your home office, but a temporary classroom for the kids? How are these workers balancing caring responsibilities with duties to their employers? Is it possible? And is it sustainable in the long term?
As we adjust to new ways of working, we must take time to reflect on the human suffering experienced during this acute spring and summer crisis. The submissions received by Workers’ Stories over the past months highlight some of the starkest and most painful difficulties faced by individuals across Scotland. We know that key workers in health and social care have been severely impacted during COVID-19. Workers in the care sector have seen some of the worst effects of the virus and the state’s response to it. The burden of their experiences will no doubt be felt for years to come. Erin Niven, a care worker and student, shared a moving spoken word piece on her experience as a carer in an Irvine care home during the peak of the pandemic. Jacky, a cleaner in a care home in Glasgow, described not only the anxiety and dread of working while she and her colleagues were getting sick and residents were dying, but the shocking lack of sick pay provision from her employer. Matthew Lynch, an ambulance technician with the Scottish Ambulance Service explored the emotional and psychological toll of front line work in the face of huge loss and grief. These stories are difficult to read but immeasurably important, both as an act of remembrance for those who have died, and as a reminder of how society might better respond to prevent such huge and unnecessary loss from happening again. Workers’ Stories will continue to accept and share submissions over the coming months, building towards an archive which ensures these stories and others are embedded in the historical record for generations to come.