"Verkannte Leistungsträger:innen," edited by Nicole Mayer-Ahuja and Oliver Nachtwey, describes the unrecognized contributions of essential workers and calls for recognition of their value and improvement of their working conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the systemic relevance of certain professions, previously overlooked but now essential, including healthcare workers, logistics workers, security personnel, and food industry workers. The book highlights the problematic nature of the concept of performance in this context, as it depends not only on labor market dynamics but also on an individual's family and social background, including their economic, social, and cultural capital. The book aims to increase understanding class dynamics and the division between capital and labor, particularly for those who work but do not possess capital. The book provides insight into the essential yet often invisible work of people who contribute to the reproduction of society in various fields, including healthcare, education, production, and logistics. The authors urge society to recognize their contribution and value their work, and discuss the impact of neoliberal policies on the erosion of workers' rights and the precariousness of work.
The working class is heterogenous. Low-wage workers face discrimination, particularly migrant women. The book features descriptions of different types of jobs.
An educator who works in a social profession must balance her professional obligations with the needs of the children under her care. She faces challenges in fulfilling her responsibilities due to limitations in her job, which leads to physical and emotional exhaustion and affects her personal life. Despite these obstacles, she actively participates in strikes and is involved in her local labor union to advocate for better working conditions for educators. People working in this field are striking a balance between being close to the children to provide support to them and their families while maintaining professional distance. The profession of childcare is often viewed as a job for women. The "Auntie” metaphor is a derogatory term that undermines the expertise of caregivers while emphasizing maternal skills, which contributes to the devaluation of care work. This leads to disrespect for those who engage in such work and has led to increased union activism in recent years. Job security is a primary motivation for these people, who also find fulfillment in watching the children develop and laying the foundation for their future educational careers. The strikes organized by these workers have been creative and unconventional, with workers dressing up and staging performances to draw attention to the undervaluation of care work. They have contributed to a shift in priorities towards female-dominated industries and have helped establish caregiving as a legitimate and visible profession, with women workers being seen as capable and active agents in industrial relations. The struggle for recognition and status in care work has become a broader social issue, and campaigns for recognition have been conducted before, during, and after strikes.
Due to the necessity of a three- to five-year education, there is a high demand for qualified social workers. The social work sector does not have a significant problem with salaries. Rather, new management methods are perceived as bureaucratic and hindering direct interactions with people. A person who previously worked for a large insurance company as a social worker experienced bureaucratic processes and a focus on achieving targets, which left little time for assisting insured individuals. She eventually left the job, feeling like a puppet, and now works for a social service that helps young adults find employment. She emphasizes the importance of highlighting young people's strengths rather than weaknesses but expresses her disappointment with the limited resources and attention devoted to social work. Neglecting the social welfare system has negative consequences, including a cycle of poverty, poor health, and a lack of opportunity.
Elderly care is a field dominated by women. The profession involves working in atypical employment relationships with unfavorable hours, low pay, high stress, and an increased risk of early retirement. A shortage of personnel exacerbated by demographic changes and inadequate staffing levels adds to these challenges (which have been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic). Despite the meaningful and fulfilling aspects of caring for others, caregiving is undervalued, underappreciated, and considered women's work, resulting in a lack of recognition and compensation for caregivers. The experiences of a foreign woman who works as a caregiver for elderly people in Switzerland highlight the precarious nature of care work, with low pay, little job security, and inadequate recognition for the emotional labor involved. The nursing profession in Germany is facing a shortage of nursing staff and has launched a campaign to attract young people to the field. There are still challenges in the profession, such as the history of undervaluation and the difficulties of recruiting and retaining staff. Nurses in training in Germany experience staff shortages and overwork leading to work overload and potential health risks.
German healthcare system's restructuring processes have led to non-medical services being outsourced to subsidiary companies, creating two different sets of employees with distinct working conditions. The subsidiary workers are typically migrant workers who face language barriers and unrecognized qualifications, which makes it difficult for them to obtain other jobs. A worker at a hospital laundry service describes the toxic work culture that resulted from an earlier successful labor strike, a lack of effectiveness in the company's works council, high absenteeism and employee turnover rates due to job insecurity and stress, and the potential for the laundry facility to be outsourced or closed. Discrimination and exploitation patterns are prevalent in other healthcare organizations as well, particularly for women and immigrants.
Publicly-owned hospitals aiming to make a profit have also adopted outsourcing strategies, resulting in lower wages for outsourced employees. Unions are faced with the dilemma of either accepting low-wage conditions or risking job losses by insisting on unionized work. Workers in logistics at different hospitals take action to resist outsourcing plans through distributing flyers, creating photo campaigns, and collecting signatures. The workers criticize the outsourcing plans, arguing that they will threaten the interests of the workers and the quality of the hospital's services. They aim to generate support and establish regulations that go beyond legal requirements for employee protection during company transfers. Collective solidarity among all professional groups is necessary, but most colleagues only complain and do not take action.
Migrant workers in the European restaurant industry face challenges as well. These workers are often employed in unskilled positions behind closed doors in the kitchen. Due to exclusionary migration and asylum policies, they experience forms of discipline that limit their rights and societal participation, and endure harsh working conditions and physical demands. Difficulties are faced by refugees working in gastronomy in Switzerland, including low wages, long hours, and job insecurity. Companies often take advantage of the flexible labor of refugees to meet their fluctuating staffing needs. Work in food-production is often-overlooked, while it’s socially essential. Collective action may be an effective tool for workers to demand better conditions, but it’s often stigmatized and portrayed as criminal behavior.
The book next delves into the issue of digital underclassing within the delivery platform industry, with a focus on migrant workers, who work as couriers for Smart Delivery. These workers are particularly vulnerable to being marginalized and devalued due to the increasing digitization of work. Migrant workers are often overqualified for their jobs due to language barriers and discrimination on the job market. They often work for delivery platforms as a last resort and experience language barriers and racist discrimination when interacting with customers.
The online retail industry has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Large multinational retail and logistics companies are dominant, such as Amazon, which is the largest player in the German market. Many of the approximately 30,000 employees in the online retail sector work for Amazon, including a high percentage of temporary and agency workers. Workers in this industry faced significant challenges in maintaining social distancing during the pandemic, leading to protests and strikes. Worker rights and opportunities for action are affected by the workers’ employment status, language, and legal status. The ability to advocate for better working conditions is linked to having a permanent contract, an indefinite residency permit, and a supportive network of colleagues. It’s important to understand the relationship between the company's expansion and the internal differentiation of the workforce to understand Amazon's management concept.
Different professions are perceived differently in society. These perceptions are influenced by attributes like social status and gender. The retail industry, despite being profitable and employing millions of people, is often characterized by poor working conditions, job insecurity, and low pay, with women and people of color often being concentrated in the lowest-paid positions. The reduction of hourly-paid employees is part of an overall strategy to increase productivity and reduce costs, leading to increased workloads and multitasking for employees. Precarious work is a problem in the retail sector, and collective action is needed to improve the working conditions of retail workers. In the online and mail-order sales and warehousing sectors, workers face tough working conditions and low wages, with little job security or opportunity for advancement.
People in cleaning jobs - which are often carried out in the evenings and at night, making them less visible to clients and other employees - are undervalued. This lack of visibility, combined with the idea that anyone can clean without formal training, leads to poor wages and working conditions for cleaners. However, specific knowledge and expertise are required to maintain hygiene, particularly in places like hospitals and rehab centers. Despite the importance of cleaning during the COVID-19 pandemic, this has not always translated into better working conditions for cleaners.
The next chapter is about the evolution of the airline industry and the working conditions of flight attendants. The glamorous Hollywood image of flight attendants in the 1980s compares badly with the harsh reality of Ryanair, a low-cost airline that emerged due to the neoliberal liberalization of the labor market. Ryanair is a union-busting company that opposes any unionization attempts and uses high rates of temporary work and repressive management. Ryanair exploits social inequality in Europe, with young workers from Eastern and Southern Europe being attracted to the job due to high youth unemployment rates. Many view it as a temporary phase before moving on to other jobs within or outside the airline industry. Flight attendants experience difficulties forming attachments to people and places due to their frequent changes in location. This sense of displacement is exacerbated by the fact that many Ryanair employees are migrants who dream of being stationed in hip European cities or going back home. However, only a few end up settling in their station's location permanently. The lack of support from the company adds to their problems, such as with finding housing, especially since they are not fluent in the local language and may not understand the formal requirements of the local housing market. Ryanair flight attendants experience disillusionment, because they are primarily expected to sell food and duty-free products to passengers, with sales figures being a significant criterion for promotions and discipline. The daily experience of the job conflicts with the professional ethics of the employees, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction. The company's management shows little respect for the staff, and the arbitrary reward and punishment system adds to the sense of disillusionment, with decisions perceived as unfair and opaque. As a result, Ryanair's working conditions lead to employees becoming quickly alienated from the company.
The hairdressing industry has issues like low wages and unfavorable working conditions. Hairdressers frequently earn below the minimum wage, work long hours, and are not entitled to sick leave or paid time off. Furthermore, women in low-wage jobs, including hairdressing, face financial dependence on their partners and constraints on career advancement opportunities. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened these issues, including for hairdressing industry workers. Success in the hairdressing profession necessitates a combination of professional competence and the ability to establish a connection with clients. Creating long-term relationships with clients is critical in this industry, as it engenders recognition and loyalty. Technical expertise improves with experience, while the formation of trust and the ability to comprehend clients' preferences and needs stem from long-term relationships. Hairdressers' emotional labor is beyond their technical abilities and includes being present, attentive, and interested in clients. Thus, hairdressers' aptitude for generating a favorable emotional experience is crucial to sustaining long-term customer relationships.
While security personnel have become more visible due to their role in enforcing restrictions during the Covid pandemic, many jobs have been lost due to canceled events. The security industry has grown steadily over the last 20 years due to the privatization of formerly state-owned tasks and the increasing privatization of public spaces. However, many workers in the security industry have precarious employment conditions, including low wages and job insecurity. Nightwork, of course can be tiring. On top of this, security workers at night often work alone. Apprentices are mistreated in this sector, and the legal provisions designed to protect them are often ignored. The apprentices are not properly supervised or trained, and they are given tasks that they are not qualified to perform. The industry suffers from frequent violations of labor laws and regulations, and apprentices are not well informed about their rights or empowered to challenge violations. The low barriers to entry into the security industry exacerbate these problems.
Ref.: Mayer-Ahuja, N., Nachtwey, O. (eds.., 2021), Verkannte Leistungsträger:innen - Berichte aus der Klassengesellschaft: Berlin: Suhrkamp.