Labour market

Increased risk of Covid-19 in precarious but essential work situations

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Increased risk of Covid-19 in precarious but essential work situations

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First author
Damini Purkayastha

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Christophe Vanroelen
Tuba Bircan
Marthe Andrea Vantyghem
Clara Gantelet Adsera


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Commissioned by the ETUI, the research institute of the European Trade Union Confederation, Damini Purkayastha, Christophe Vanroelen and their colleagues at VUB’s Interface Demography research group examined the relationship between occupational health and the Covid-19 pandemic. Prof Christophe Vanroelen: “Without a doubt, the most important conclusion of the study is that there are large inequalities in the way workers are confronted with the Covid-19 crisis. The nature of the work plays an important role: in some occupations, physical contact is unavoidable, safety measures are more difficult to implement or teleworking is not feasible. But the nature of work also plays a very important role.”

Their report, “Work, health and Covid-19: a literature review”, brings together the results of studies on various aspects of how workers have coped with the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a comprehensive overview of the impact of Covid-19 on work and workers’ health. Occupational health and safety policy is an important theme.


In the same storm, not in the same boat

An important conclusion of the study is that workers with low or precarious income, flexible contracts, lack of access to social protection – in short, workers in precarious employment situations – are much more exposed to the adverse effects of the Covid-19 crisis. In addition, certain socio-demographic groups are in a particularly vulnerable situation due to the combination of their occupational and broader social situation: e.g. migrant workers, ethnic minorities, women in care and personal services, undocumented migrants, informal workers. Often, these characteristics occur simultaneously, reinforcing the unfavourable situation for certain workers.

“Studies from different sectors around the world highlight how people in precarious employment status are at higher risk of exposure, not only because they lack adequate paid sick leave or affordable healthcare, but also because they lack the power to demand better working conditions. Low-income workers, seasonal workers, undocumented migrant workers, workers from ethnic minority communities – especially if they are women – are among those most vulnerable to occupational exposure because they face some of these factors,” Vanroelen explains


Essential but vulnerable

Given the nature of the pandemic, measures for working from home are limited to a small, privileged group of workers. Occupations that require the physical presence of workers are more likely to be low-income, precarious jobs. “Ironically, several of these professions were declared ‘essential’ during the pandemic,” Vanroelen says.

Low-wage workers are vulnerable for many reasons. They cannot afford to stay at home when they are ill, they are unlikely to call in sick when they have symptoms, or fear that they could lose their jobs. Workers in precarious employment often do not have the bargaining power to demand better protection against the virus. Studies have also shown that sectors with higher union representation had better access to protective equipment and lower Covid-19 mortality rates.


Recognition of Covid-19 as an occupational disease

“In addition to recognising Covid-19 as an occupational disease and providing adequate protection to workers in all sectors, it is important that occupational safety and health measures go beyond ‘limiting exposure to the virus’. An adequate prevention policy must also address the factors that make it difficult to protect against exposure, such as employment status, social protection or the level of participation. In concrete terms, better representation of workers’ interests, effective control of safety measures, increased job security and social protection, a good sick leave policy and better monitoring of the Covid-19 risk in the workplace can improve the situation of workers who are in a vulnerable position,” says Vanroelen

The report is available here.


Prof Christophe Vanroelen