Low-skill no more! essential workers, social reproduction and the legitimacy-crisis of the division of labour

Farris, Sara R.. 2022. Low-skill no more! essential workers, social reproduction and the legitimacy-crisis of the division of labour. Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 23(2-3), pp. 342-358. ISSN 2159-9149 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Workers in the realm of social reproduction – e.g. nurses, carers, cleaners, food preparation workers etc. – are considered low-skill and are poorly remunerated. During the Covid-19 crisis they have been recast as ‘essential’, leading to unprecedented praise and attention in public discourse. Nonetheless, public praise for these ‘essential’ workers so far has not translated into a commitment for higher wages and improved working conditions. In this article, we argue that skills hierarchies continue to determine labour market outcomes and social inequalities. We pinpoint that these are embedded into the logic of capitalist social relations, rather than being an expression of the features of jobs themselves. We also show how some socially reproductive sectors resist the tendency to automation precisely because of the prevalence therein of a workforce which is portrayed as un-skilled. By focussing on low-skilled workers’ engagement in various forms of labour unrest and their demands for long overdue recognition and wage rises. the article puts into question the inherited skills-lexicon according to which low-wage jobs are unproductive and lacking in skills and competence. The authors conclude that these workers’ fights for the recognition of the dignity and importance of their jobs and professions can facilitate a rethinking of the division of labour in our societies.

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Social reproduction; skills; essential workers; division of labour

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4 January 2022Accepted
15 June 2022Published Online

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Date Deposited:

09 Dec 2022 17:14

Last Modified:

09 Dec 2022 17:14

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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