The global COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, with brutal clarity, just how quickly the world of work can change. Labor markets have been upended and unemployment numbers continue to climb. Workplaces are shuttered, though the term “homework” has gained new meaning for parents and other caregivers stepping into the role of teacher while tending to remote responsibilities. At the same time, a new category of work has emerged—that which is deemed essential labor. This category includes a striking assortment of jobs in terms of pay or prestige, spanning sectors like health care, law enforcement, agriculture, food service and distribution, energy, waste, transportation, communication, and logistics. Taken as a contemporary social fact, however, essential labor is poised to teach us important lessons about the world of work.
Exertions, the short-format web publication of the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW), invites submissions of no more than 2,000 words for a special forum on essential labor. We are interested in submissions that contribute to our understandings of this work that must go on in both ethnographic and theoretical veins. What does work look like under such extraordinary circumstances, and what is “essential” about it? Is it infrastructural because it facilitates other economic activities? Is it better thought of in terms of social reproduction, amid feminist debates about the concept’s critical traction? Or are essential laborers paradoxically those who have been judged disposable, facing down harms so that others can take refuge?
Contributions to this forum on “Essential Labor” will be published on a rolling basis in the weeks ahead, after an expedited editorial process. Please send an expression of interest (a brief paragraph is fine) to forum editor Josh Fisher at Josh.Fisher@wwu.edu. We welcome texts written for a variety of audiences, as well as multimedia contributions including photo and video essays. Our hope is to bring together a diversity of perspectives—at once experiential, practical, historical, theoretical, and philosophical—to help us understand the stakes of essential work both now and after the pandemic subsides.
Preview image credit: Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority, licensed under CC BY.