Who do you think of when you think of the working class? A factory worker, perhaps, or a manual labourer. Maybe the phrase evokes images of miners and shipbuilders and dockyard; of black and white footage of picket lines and marches. It’s likely the people in your mind’s eye are men. It’s likely that most of them are white.

This stubborn archetype persists in the public imagination despite dramatic changes to the UK and Scotland in recent decades. The decline of heavy industry has seen the economy shift to one reliant on service and care over manufacturing. An increase in temporary contracts, outsourcing and subcontracting has seen traditionally secure workplaces – universities; the NHS – become precarious and their workers poorly protected. Advancements in technology have seen WhatsApp threads and Facebook groups replace staff rooms and water coolers. And all of this combined highlights a pressing truth: that our stereotype of the working class is no longer fit for purpose.

Never has this been shown so clearly as during the Covid-19 pandemic and the ways in which attempts to slow its transmission have intersected with our working lives. This week, as lockdown eased further in Scotland and more workers returned to restaurants, bars and beauty salons across the country, new figures highlighted 600 cases in which people were suspected to have contracted the virus at work. Dominating these cases are care home workers, alongside NHS staff, funeral directors, hairdressers and beauty therapists – and, unions say, they represent just the tip of the iceberg due to chronic underreporting in industries such as social care and hospitality which are also likely to be affected.

That the workplaces reporting the highest number of cases are likely to be dominated by women and BAME workers is no coincidence and not really any surprise either. Their concentration in low-paid and undervalued jobs translates directly as a concentration in unsafe, insecure and under-unionised ones. While a fictional stereotype of the white working class man as the most vulnerable and marginalised worker persists, women, immigrants and people of colour continue to put themselves on the line to help and provide for others. In our "new normal", care and service are the new heavy machinery and manual labour.

The opaque nature of today’s labour market has also served as a gift for governments looking for a one-size-fits all approach to coronavirus safety. Throughout the pandemic, the generic worker constructed in guidance from governments such as the UK’s has been a white-collar, office-based professional who can seamlessly transition to home-working given a corner of the kitchen table and a wifi router. As well as ignoring the swathes of care, service and remaining industrial workers who together make up the majority of the country’s workforce, it also ignores the very real service and care work that takes place inside the home, brought even more to the fore during lockdowns; presumably the worker in the Government’s mind’s eye is a white man too.

Discussions of work during this pandemic, then, have laid bare a confusion at the heart of society about what constitutes it, who does it, and where it takes place. Who is the archetypal Scottish or British worker now? What does a precarious job look like during a pandemic? What does it mean to be working class in 2020?

Class as a whole is famously hard to pin down or define. Class status is fluid and ever-changing, and in the public imagination has come to encompass a whole range of factors from work and financial stability through to cultural and aesthetic markers. Attempts to define it more solidly often amount to little more than a checklist ranging from wages and benefits claims through to time spent in art galleries and what you ate for dinner as a child. But if this global crisis has shown us anything, it’s that your protection at work – from viruses, from unfair dismissal, from pay cuts and redundancy – must play some part.

Keeping people safe therefore requires a clear-sighted view of the labour market and an updated understanding of class – and specifically the working class – that is based in reality and not nostalgia, and that deals in material circumstance and not aesthetics. One that recognises how women and BAME workers are concentrated in workplace situations that make them uniquely vulnerable; one that can grapple with the fact that a university teaching assistant might be as precarious, low-paid and under-protected as a labourer, or that a call centre might be as unsafe as a factory line. And one that makes visible how the undervalued care and service work that might just save both society and the economy from the ravages of a global pandemic can also be the most dangerous work of all.

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