Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Pandemics and Wages

In capitalism, workers have to sell their ability to work or their "labour power" to capitalists. Under capitalism labour power is a commodity and just like any other commodity it has a use value to the capitalist and an exchange value in the form of the wage for the worker.

Labour power is a perishable commodity. If it is not sold on a daily, weekly or monthly basis is just disappears. And it is perishable because, if the worker cannot sell their labour power they will perish.

Why are workers forced to enter the labour market and find employment? Simple. Workers do not own and control the means of production and distribution. Workers do not own the land, minerals, the oil and the gas, factories, transport and communication systems, and distribution points. Propertyless, workers are forced to sell their labour power to survive as a subject class.

Workers are also at the mercy of trade cycles. They might be employed one day and due to an economic crisis and trade depression, lose their job the next. Workers find themselves unprofitable to employ. Throughout capitalism's history there have been many periods of very high unemployment caused by trade depressions.

Workers now face the consequences of the global pandemic crisis. Throughout the world, governments have introduced stringent measures to counter the global Covid-19 pandemic. Workers faced face a threat to their employment, necessary to pay for rent, mortgages, food , transport and so on.

The British government, for example, introduced two lock-downs and other measures where businesses were forced to close and social movement curtailed. Only essential businesses were to remain open. The government was faced with a virus which threatened disruption of capitalist production through illness and mass deaths in the population and pressures on an inadequately resourced National Health Service which had been subject to cuts for over a decade. The Government also had made no contingency plans for the likelihood of a viral pandemic.

The drastic repercussions of the lock-down was that millions of workers were put on 'furlough' at 80 per cent of their wages. On 8 May some 8.9 million workers were furloughed but were retained in employment. Mass unemployment with little or no income for workers would have led to civil disorder; rioting and looting. The lock-downs prevented several sectors of the economy from functioning properly; particularly retail, hospitality, holidays, culture and sport. Hundreds of secondary employments, associated with these five sectors of the economy, were also affected.

Some workers, nevertheless, still lost their jobs and were forced to live off what passes for social security which is not a lot. Having to live off reduced wages during the pandemic exposed the inadequacy of capitalism, its severe limitations and the exposure of the working class to significant poverty. Some workers found that they could no longer afford to feed their children.

A shock of unemployment, usually an economic crisis, comes out of the blue. It is a great leveller. It creates unemployment, hardship and unpredictability. The government anticipates that there will be 2.5 m people unemployed in 2021 when the true effect of the pandemic crisis is known. The lives of these workers will be miserable, hard and desperate.

Look at the consequence of the pandemic for members of the working class and their families. Millions of workers already receive mean and basic subsidies to their wages in the form of universal credit, housing or child benefits. Millions of low pad workers live in the gig economy, in precarious jobs and in 'self-employment'. They also live in poor housing with few facilities like gardens. Mental health is a severe problem for these workers. Some workers - architects, engineers and so-called 'professionals' - have found themselves facing large pay cuts yet still face financial obligations.

Workers earning high salaries have found themselves competing for jobs at a fraction of their original salary. Airline pilots have been particularly hard hit by unemployment. One pilot was interviewed by the BBC News who had been earning £80k a year but, following being made unemployed, was now earning a few hundred pounds a month flying a commercial drone. Many workers who had been contributing surplus products to food banks now found themselves using the self-same facilities themselves. Other had to rely on charity and the support of friends and family.

Under ordinary conditions being a worker on a wage or salary is hard. Under the global pandemic the wages system has shown how universally hard and unremitting capitalism really is for the working class.

The pandemic has hit the working class hard. Covid-19 has created economic upheaval. When employed workers who are in work they are ruthlessly exploited, and when unemployed they are on their own until they find employment again. Unemployment is worrying, unpleasant and humiliating. Mental health issues have increased along with social problems like violence, drug abuse and loneliness.

At the turn of 2020 no one, outside some rarefied scientific circles, expected a global pandemic. It spread fast and the implications for those forced to live on a wage or salary devastating. Although there have been other pandemics in capitalism, this is the first global pandemic causing economic and health problems on a world-wide scale. While capitalism exists it will not be the last.

The profit from deforestation and wild animal markets is too great to be effected by reforms. The rapacious drive for profits by capitalist companies in fossil fuel exploration, timber logging, mining and urban expansion without regard for nature, created the conditions for the emergence of a succession of pathogens deadly to the human body to which it lacked immunity. Under capitalism these destructive trends will continue.

The problem facing workers is not the pandemic as such but employment and the capitalist social system in which employment take place. Workers are at a major disadvantage by being dependent on wages and having to seek employment. This does not have to be the case.

World socialism and the framework of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society would meet the threat of any global pandemic in a more rational, planned and comprehensive way than any programme advanced by capitalism and its politicians, Labour or Tory. Socialism would not be guided by the interests of employers, their needs and their social system.

In socialism there would not be a threadbare and underfunded health service. There would be capacity to meet the health requirements necessary to treat the pandemic. There would be global co-operation for finding vaccines without the interference of national boundaries and profit of pharmaceuticals getting in the way.

Planning for pandemics would exist as a matter of course as would the specialism required to formulate and dispense vaccines. Workers would not be in fear of losing jobs and forced to use food banks because socialist production and distribution would be taking place, purely and solely for human use. Production for direct social use would prevail throughout the world. The market cannot do this, neither can fragmented and governments whose first priority has to be the interests of capitalism and the capitalist class.

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