As one of millions of self-employed people who has been put out of work by this crisis, I have been left my job thinking about what is meant by that word- work. It can mean both a professional engagement for which one is paid, and an endeavour undertaken to achieve a goal.
These definitions often go hand in hand, and us freelancers commit to this financially precarious life because we know that the goal we are striving is worth it. That there is virtue in it.
Speaking from my own experience, when freelancing as a chef, waiter or bartender, I am not only there for the pay check but because I believe good food and good service bring people together. It is called hospitality for a reason. Anyone working in the industry will tell you that a day of rude customers is instantly improved when their efforts to be hospitable are responded to with genuine gratitude.
Supplying people with a good time is very rewarding. Once this is over, and we can gather again people will be desperate for those good times, and those that work to supply them will be essential in returning us to normality. My work as a freelance musician and teacher have garnered me similar lessons on the value of work.
The musician choosing virtue over profits is perhaps a cliché, but still rings true. I have spent summers sleeping in tents, living out of a van and doing gigs paid more in exposure than money. I have done all this because, just as I have learned in hospitality, facilitating people enjoying themselves is its own reward. I’m sure the many thousands of people who paid bought tickets to festivals and gigs now cancelled will be glad to gather and hear music again, and artists of all stripes will be essential for our collective healing.
While no one would argue that teaching is non-essential, music is often is often considered low down on the significance scale. It is not a core subject, and therefore is considered less in Ofsted inspections. But in my experience music, and the other arts, are an amazing outlet for students, especially those that find a traditional classroom setting challenging. Now the schools are shut, such outlets are going to be vital for the sanity of both children and parents alike.
I have to remind myself of the reasons I chose my particular occupations, as right now I am feeling very surplus to requirement. The work we do in the arts, media and hospitality are not need as much now, but will be needed again in spades after this is all over. But until that time, this crisis demands a different kind of work for which none of us will be paid. Work in the service of public health.
We must self-isolate, and maintain high standards of hygiene. This undertaking is for those most at risk, and those essential workers putting themselves in harm’s way for the rest of us. Medical professionals, cleaners, delivery drivers, and supermarket staff need us to do our part to reduce the spread of the virus.
Similarly emotional labour is going to an important form of work that we must all engage in to maintain mental health. Self-isolation is going to take a toll on all of us, so we must prepare to look out for those who were already struggling pre-virus.
This crisis also demands a great deal of political work to be done, not only by the government but by us. We must take the government to task. Proof that this work pays off is that as of writing, after weeks of pressure, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced measures to support the self-employed, similar to the ones already in place for employees.
But this money will only be available in June, and the only support government is offering in the meantime is Universal credit, which even with recent increases only amounts to a maximum of £94.25 a week. A temporary universal basic income is one of the most viable alternative to this, and would offer greater support to non self-employed people fired from jobs due to the uncertainty of the crisis. Organisations such as Basic Income Conversation are working hard to make the case for this to the government.
We must also work to challenge the ideas that facilitated the government’s slow response to this ordeal. The pre-lockdown measures were all products of a neoliberal political imagination. The view that preservation of economy is paramount, private enterprises are the most effective at solving social problems, and that governments adhering to these values give their citizens the greatest degree of individual freedom.
The government wanted business as usual for as long as possible. This is apparent in their initial aversion to closures. The prime minister even cited a potential drop in GDP as the reason for his apprehension in closing schools. In the limbo period in which people were advised to avoid bars and restaurants, but these spaces were not told to shut down, the onus of responsibility was foisted upon these business.
They could choose to close in service of public health, but most remained open making what profits they could and/or laid staff off. This is the most recent in a long history of governmental activity galvanising the attitude that the sole goal of work is profit, and a worker’s value is evaluated accordingly.
This value system is summed up but the guiding principle of the government’s initial response: herd immunity. At the time it was claimed that this approach was supported by science, but I don’t doubt that there was an economic drive behind it also. We were supposed to idly carry on, while the most vulnerable perished in order to keep business ticking over as usual. I am glad we have abandon this approach, and we should abandon similar views of us as a collective in future. We are not a herd. We are a community.
As freelancers we might not naturally conceive of themselves as part of a community. We could be considered the ultimate neoliberals, one-person enterprises here to solves the world’s problems with private sector solutions. But we are more than that. In work I am part of many different teams, many different communities. When I’m pulling my first pint after the bars reopen, I will not only be part of the team behind the bar but the community in front of it.
When I am teaching in person again, I will be part of the community of my fellow teachers, my students and their parents. When I am playing the first gig after all this I will not only be part of the team on stage, but of the community out in front of it. The “non-essential” work we do is essential to reminding people that we are a community, and while there isn’t much work going have to strive to ensure that our rights of all workers are met. Now and post-crisis.