The Expendability of “Essential” Workers

Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has said repeatedly that “slavery never ended. It just evolved.”

I have been thinking about that statement as I have watched and listened to conversation about “essential” workers as we live in this pandemic.  They include health care workers, janitors, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, waiters and waitresses, bus drivers, police and fire personnel, those who run the subways and more …and yet, it seems to me they are the people considered to be most expendable by the federal government and by the businesses which employ them.

So many of these “essential” workers have lost their lives and/or their jobs, but from the federal government, I hear little concern. Instead, there is a push to get the economy alive again, with corporations joining forces with the Trump administration to get the people back to work. And the president is apparently being urged to open the country – come what may – by nervous corporations who are losing lots and lots of money as this virus ravages through the country.

In this country, 3.8 million people have lost their jobs. The federal government and big businesses are very concerned about that number.

The latest insult to the lives and dignity of these workers came this week as the president issued an executive order ordering meat-packing plants to stay open, in spite of outbreaks of the coronavirus in several of them. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/28/trump-meat-plants-dpa/) At least 17 people who work in these plants have died of COVID-19, and over 5,000 have been affected by the disease. A report today said that some workers who are afraid to return to the plants or to any businesses opening before the recommended wait time for fear of contracting the virus are facing the possibility of losing their unemployment benefits if they refuse to return to work. (https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/29/847937625/workers-scared-as-trump-orders-meat-plants-to-open-during-coronavirus-crisis) (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/29/unemployment-coronavirus-safety-223216)

The workers are being placated and are being told that there will be extra or adequate protective gear for them, the same necessary gear that health care workers – again, essential workers – have been begging for which they have not been able to get in the numbers they need for the past two months.  Not to worry, dear meatpacking workers. The protective gear will keep them safe. If it doesn’t?  Unfortunately, the attitude seems to be “well, we tried.” If any of the workers get sick and/or die, the focus will be replacing the deceased by immediately hiring more people to do the work.

Period.

The government feels like it is being run by the president and corporate presidents that consider human beings to be mere commodities, and those not in the highest ranks of the plantation infrastructure – from cabinet members to legislators to some local politicians – are acting as the overseers. Their job is to keep the plantation open and thriving.

It is heartbreaking to see the lack of concern for human life being shown by the president and by big business. In this country, over 60,000 people have died – more than those who died in the Vietnam War – and yet, there has been no outpouring of concern from bedfellows big government and big business, a tawdry partnership if there ever was one. The only thing that matters is the making, accumulation, and sustaining of wealth and power. If some of those who are making these individuals and their businesses wealthy, then so be it. “The partnership” has many supporters, people who are a part of the 99 percent of Americans in this country who are struggling to survive, even as the one percent hoards wealth. Many of the supporters have said that it is no big concern if some people die in the work to save the economy. That must make “the partnership” smile, but the sad reality is that their lives are expendable too, to themselves, apparently, as well as to those whom they support so vehemently. As long as they can work, they matter. When they can no longer help fill the coffers of the wealthy, they, too, will be disregarded and forgotten.

This is none other than slavery by another name.

I have – as have many of us – read about how enslaved Africans were forced to work, regardless of how they felt physically. Pregnant women would work in the fields up to the moment of giving birth, which means they worked while in labor. All of the slaves worked in oppressive heat and humidity; those in the rice fields stood knee-deep in mosquito-infested water for hours each day, which made malaria a common malady. The mortality rate among those enslaved could be as high as 90 percent, but neither the plantation owner nor the overseers cared. The goal was to keep the money coming, and the essential people – the enslaved Africans and their children – were needed and used until they got too sick to work or they died. (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2956.html

We are seeing the same attitude today from the federal government and from some state governments. Yes, the status of the economy is bad and frightening, but the fact that there is no concern for or even gratitude being voiced for the work these people are doing is telling. People, it seems, of all colors, but especially brown and black, are still commodities, objects, not human beings, worth their weight in gold because they make the ruling class wealthy, but at the same time, worth nothing because of their color and economic status.

Bryan Stevenson is right. Slavery never ended. We are seeing its evolution now. The soul of this country is terminal. And that being the case, so is the image and the myth of the “exceptional” United States of America. Essential workers are truly essential – to everyone – but in the eyes of the moneyed class, they are also expendable.

A candid observation …

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