Human Rights Workshop: Adelle Blackett Reflects on Protecting Essential Workers

Blackett argued that recognizing essential workers has not extended to recognizing their rights.

Adelle Blackett discussed the urgency of global social protection for essential workers at the November 12, 2020 Human Rights Workshop titled “COVID-19, Essential Workers and Dignity at Work: Rethinking Social Protection.” Blackett, a Professor of Law and Canada Research Chair in Transnational Labour Law and Development at the Faculty of Law of McGill University, shared her findings from her contributions to the recently published Éditions Le Seuil book on the #DemocratizingWork manifesto. She lamented how, in light of COVID-19, people were “content to accept the invisibility of workers [and to] acknowledge the magnitude of their contribution to our ability to shelter-in-place,” but unwilling to call for “structural change” and the recognition of “labor rights as human rights.”

Blackett explored the significance of calling someone an essential worker, especially during a public health crisis. During the pandemic, the language around essential workers, Blackett said, characterized essential workers as people who “put themselves selflessly in harm’s way” to manage the food industry, nursing homes, and schools. The result, to Blackett, has been a “hypervisibility of essential workers without challenging the framing of what their needs are.” Thus, she suggested, societies simultaneously acknowledge the need for these workers and fail to protect their rights.

These observations motivated the #DemocratizingWork manifesto. #DemocratizingWork, according to Blackett, was started by “female academics” and evolved into a movement with “over 6,000 signatories and counting.” The initiative calls for “democratizing and decommodifying labor” and it underscores this “unique moment to be rethinking the critical need that this pandemic makes plain and to imagine the world of work anew.” To illustrate the movement’s call to “challenge the dehumanization of workers,” Blackett invoked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 speech in solidarity with Memphis sanitation workers — one of his last before his assassination — titled “All Labor Has Dignity.” Blackett read from King’s speech: “So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs…But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth.” The call for “structural change” and “reconstruction” is “entirely fitting in this current moment of reckoning,” Blackett said.

The pandemic, to Blackett, has also highlighted the “historical continuity and...the persistence of forms of racial capitalism.” She pointed to the “overrepresentation of African Americans among essential workers” who cannot shelter-in-place and consequently, are “overexposed to COVID-19 and death.” She noted, as well, that asylum seekers are “doing much of the essential work in Quebec and putting their life on the line,” but many still remain at risk of deportation. Blackett challenged the logic of “calling them essential but putting them in a position where they can be sent away.”

Workers themselves, Blackett emphasized, are mobilizing around the problems that the pandemic has made plain. She noted a recent AFL-CIO and SEIU complaint to the U.N. specialized agency, the International Labor Organization, in support of workers’ freedom of association and overall representation, which Blackett said alleged that “the laws, the policies, and the practices of the U.S. government violate fundamental rights to the freedom of association, to organize, to bargain collectively.” For Blackett, this complaint “underscored what it means to have a deep institutionalization of the kinds of protections that labor law affords.”

The recently published #DemocratizingWork book explores how labor rights should be effectively protected. One focus was workplace representation. Contributor Isabelle Ferreras argues that putting workers at “the center of workplace governance” would grant them greater representation and rights, Blackett said. Yale Associate Professor of Political Science Hélène Landemore, another contributor, defends the concept of workplace democracy.

In addition to the issue of representation, Blackett is concerned with redistribution for essential workers. She recalled how, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, people who were unemployed received temporary forms of compensation. “The State financed redistributive policies,” Blackett said, “so the focus could be placed on health.” Similar efforts have not been pursued for essential workers, however. The “low-hanging fruit in public policy,” Blackett said, is an increase in minimum wage. Blackett is partial to the “bolder” reforms that “call attention to income inequality...the massive yawning gap between the pay at the top and the bottom.”

The contributors to the #DemocratizingWork initiative have also championed “more fulsome, ambitious policies.” The Universal Job Guarantee in particular, Blackett said, is a policy that has received a lot of press in the U.S. and for which her #DemocratizingWork colleague Pavlina Tcherneva has made the case. It is also, she noted, “in sync” with the International Labour Organization’s centenary reflections. Addressing the issue of global social protection, Blackett argued that “We should be thinking more about universal benefits…foregrounded in this moment,” she said. “[These benefits are] infinitely doable if one rethinks the costs of unemployment.” These forms of social protection would afford workers the power to say no to a “bad job,” she said. “What does it mean to say a worker must be able to work in dignity?”

Blackett concluded by underscoring the ambition of the #DemocratizingWork project: “It takes seriously the work of rethinking the world.” At its core, #DemocratizingWork is about “wanting to recreate” and redefining labor from simply “pure profit maximization” to “an act of freedom.” Further, Blackett believes that the International Trade Union Confederation’s “[global] measures of redistribution…that allow for decent work conditions” affirm the ambitious process of “rethinking the world of work.” She urges other scholars to realize their role in helping “facilitate processes of reconstruction…in a bold way.”