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News Article

Essential Work, a Difficult Definition

By Cas Biekmann | Wed, 04/08/2020 - 14:39

For many people, working from home has become the norm. This article was written from a home office, for instance. The reader is likely browsing while being isolated, as well. Yet, some professions do not allow for remote work, which is partly the definition of “essential work.” Mexico’s government decides what this means for the country. Nonetheless, the lack of definition invites discussion.

Should workers go to the office during a pandemic if lives are at stake? Opinions on the issue are divided. Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, argued that the economy is more important to save than human lives. If the economy falls, more will be at risk. WHO adopted a more humanist position, saying in a statement that every measure governments take should be aimed at saving lives.

Regardless of how much the government aims to restrict businesses and save lives, some activities simply need to continue. This is either due to direct social necessity or due to grave consequences if work is suddenly halted. It is a delicate balance, said Gary Mortimer, a professor of marketing and consumer behavior at the Queensland University of Technology. In the case of Mexico, the country opted for the following work to be marked as essential, according to El Economista:

  • Medical, paramedical, administrative and supporting activities in the health sector
  • Services and supplies for the medical sector, including pharmacies and manufacturing of supplies, medical equipment and technologies for healthcare
  • Biological and hazardous waste management and disposal and the sanitization of medical units at different levels of care
  • Public security and protection of citizens, as well as the national defense and justice systems
  • Legislative activity at federal and state level

Some economic sectors cannot stop producing due to national interest or potential negative consequences. These includes:

  • Financial services
  • Tax collection
  • Distribution and selling of energy, hydrocarbons and gas
  • Generation and distribution of drinking water
  • Production of food and non-alcoholic beverages
  • Food markets, supermarkets and other grocery stores
  • Passenger transportation and cargo services
  • Agricultural work and livestock production
  • Hardware stores
  • Courier services
  • Safeguarding of private, secured laboratories, chemical production and cleaning services
  • Nurseries, asylums and homes for the elderly
  • Telecommunications and information media
  • Private emergency services
  • Funeral and burial services
  • Storage and preservation of essential items
  • Airports, ports and railways

This is no small list but it is being challenged either way. Reuters reported that Mexican carmakers asked the government to receive an essential industry designation, as well. Measures to combat COVID-19 are putting their plants on lockdown, meaning that around 1 million workers of an industry contributing 3.8 percent to the GDP are sitting idle.

Furthermore, US companies are lobbying with the Mexican government to continue working. The American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) is leading the proposal. Issues included in the lobbying involve can makers. Even though food is deemed essential, once the cans in which food is stored run out, production will need to be halted. The mining sector has successfully lobbied with the government to avoid costly and potentially unsafe paralyzing of its entire operations. Some operations like promoting mine safety, managing waste and keeping mines from closing up completely are allowed to continue.

The data used in this article was sourced from:  
The Conversation, The Guardian, El Economista, Reuters, WHO
Cas Biekmann Cas Biekmann Journalist and Industry Analyst