Hazards banner
       Hazards, number 153, 2021
CANNON FODDER | Covid 19 and deadly work: The UK and France compared
As the UK worked through third lockdown, Leeds University French studies professor Sarah Waters compares how governments protected essential workers in France and the UK. She says while these workers were hit hard in both countries, the UK workers came off worst.


Over the past year, both the UK and French governments have portrayed essential workers as heroes who embody exemplary duty and self-sacrifice in the face of a war on ‘an invisible enemy’.

Behind this rhetoric, key workers have been treated by both governments as an expendable resource who have been deliberately exposed to avoidable death in their daily work. What characterises key workers in reality, is that their labour value, during the pandemic, has superseded their right to life. Workers in both countries have been forced to work in unsafe workplaces in response to economic interests and their lives have been sacrificed in the service of ‘essential’ jobs.

While both the UK and France have followed similar labour policies, French workers went into lockdown with far stronger social and employment protections which meant that they were less exposed to deadly risks than their UK counterparts.

Who is essential?

What value do governments attach to workers’ lives at a time of unprecedented global crisis? In the face of a profound health crisis, the UK and French governments followed a remarkably similar policy line. This consisted of identifying key workers who would be obliged to continue working throughout the pandemic in the interests of the population as a whole, but at personal risk to their own lives.

This consisted of identifying key workers who would be obliged to continue working throughout the pandemic in the interests of the population as a whole, but at personal risk to their own lives. Political leaders framed essential work in terms of the exigencies of the health crisis and the grave national emergency that was unfolding. In his speech of 16 March 2020, French president Emmanuel Macron repeated the phrase ‘we are at war’ six times. Meanwhile, UK prime minister Boris Johnson declared ‘we are engaged in a war against this disease which we must win’ and remarked ‘this enemy can be deadly.’

In reality, the notion of ‘essential work’ was skewed from the outset towards economic priorities rather than health concerns.

While the UK government established lists of essential workers across the health, social care, retail, transport, communications, financial services and public services sector, the term was quickly expanded to refer to anyone who couldn’t work from home. Government advice on 23 March 2020 was: “If you cannot work from home then you are allowed to travel for work purposes.”

Not a lockdown

No new laws were introduced to close ‘non-essential’ workplaces. It was left up to employers to decide who were key workers and who were not. Public Health England’s guidance on 24 March 2020 seemed to abandon even the most basic safety precautions in favour of keeping people in work and keeping businesses open.

It noted: “If a member of staff has helped someone who was taken unwell with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature, they do not need to go home unless they develop symptoms themselves… It is not necessary to close the business or workplace or send any staff home, unless government policy changes.”

Guidance on Covid-19 prioritised ‘high risk’ health workers for the best respiratory protection. The result was much higher Covid-19 rates in supposedly lower risk jobs in health care and other sectors .

According to Open Democracy, the reason the UK has had one of the highest Covid death rates in Europe is that the government allowed people to continue to work and allowed bosses to make people continue to go to work during lockdown. It noted: “We don’t actually have a lockdown.”

A large-scale survey of 2,750 call-centre workers by the University of Strathclyde found that many were continuing to work in non-essential jobs, such as personal injury or property damage claims, and fewer than one in five believed that they had an essential or emergency role. 78 per cent feared that they would catch Covid-19 in the workplace. Many complained of inadequate social distancing, sanitation and health and safety regulations.

The UK government issued new guidelines at the start of the third lockdown on 6 January 2021 which defined essential work in terms of any work that could not be ‘reasonably’ carried out at home and expanded the list of those who could go to work. It was left entirely at employers’ discretion to decide when it was reasonable or unreasonable to carry out work from home.

One survey by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) found that one in nine employees were ordered to return to work at the beginning of January 2021, when they could have worked from home.

Meanwhile, mass Covid outbreaks have been reported across workplaces including 500 cases at the DVLA in Swansea, 324 at an M&S sandwich supplier in Northamptonshire and 217 at a chicken processing plant in Anglesey.

Au travail

The French government also invoked the notion of essential work to persuade workers to stay in their jobs during the lockdown period. Unlike in the UK, the French government refused to publish official lists of essential workers, arguing that frontline workers relied on other services across the economy and it was impossible to specify who or what sectors were essential.

From mid-March onwards, fearing an economic downturn, government ministers exhorted French workers to return to their workplaces as an urgent national priority. Minister of work Muriel Pénicaud on 21 March 2020 accused unions in the construction sector of ‘defeatism’ for calling on their workers not to turn up on building sites because of safety concerns.

As a result, many non-essential companies and sectors continued to function on a business as usual basis throughout the pandemic. Large manufacturers including carmakers, pharmaceutical companies, aircraft production and nuclear energy maintained operations throughout the lockdown period.

Unions pointed to the irony that Airbus was continuing to assemble aircraft during the lockdown, even though airlines had been grounded across the world. At pharmaceutical company Sanofi, where 600 employees were infected with Covid-19 (120 at a single production site), unions urged bosses to restrict production to urgent medical supplies. When workers at Amazon in France went on strike and unions took their case to the courts, the Versailles appeal court ruled on 24 April 2020 that the company needed to restrict their delivery services to essential supplies.

Labour markets

Covid 19 is proving a test case on contrasting economic models exposing structural inequalities that existed long before the onset of the crisis. While Johnson and Macron’s labour policies have followed a roughly similar line, favouring economic interests over health concerns, they were implemented in very different labour markets, where workers were differentially exposed to health risks.

The UK has one of the most flexible labour markets in the world with limited regulations and formal protections for employees, whereas France has been characterised by its regulated and protected workforce where rights are enshrined within an extensive Labour Code.

In the UK, the myth of flexibility, presented as a ‘national success story’, helped to legitimise an exponential rise of low-paid, insecure and zero-hours work in the ten to 15 years that preceded the pandemic. A report published by the Health Foundation in February 2020 shows that 36 per cent of UK workers or approximately 10 million people work in low-quality, precarious or low-paid jobs. While care workers were praised and applauded during the crisis, statistics show that around half of them earn less than the living wage and 1-in-7 of them is on a zero hours contract.

This meant that workers across vast swathes of the UK economy entered the pandemic with weak social protection in terms of sick pay and employment rights. Workers have been exposed to deadly risk both as a consequence of state regulations which have forced them to show up to work in potentially dangerous conditions, but also because of an official negligence which leaves them unprotected, unregulated, lacking rights and exposed to fatal harm.

UK workers ill with coronavirus have the lowest mandatory sick pay of all 37 OECD industrialised nations as a proportion of average earnings. Many are forced to work even when sick or self-isolating or face losing all their earnings.

This prompted a cross-party group of MPs to write to Deliveroo on the 13 May 2020, to ask for basic provision such as sick pay for workers who are ill or have coronavirus symptoms and basic protective equipment to keep them safe. The death of a 44-year-old Uber driver who had tested positive for Covid-19 in April, led to a campaign for regulatory enforcement to push private hire operators to introduce safety protocols and personal protective equipment.

In France, Emmanuel Macron like his predecessors has made concerted efforts to deregulate labour protections, but while the proportion of atypical work has increased significantly, it has not yet reached the endemic levels evident in the UK. Some critics point to an ‘uberisation’ of the French economy and the number of workers in atypical jobs increased by 22 per cent between 2006 and 2013. Like in the UK, gig economy workers, such as taxi drivers, couriers, agricultural workers who fall outside the protections of the Labour Code have been forced to work even when ill or lose their income.

Macron even took advantage of the national emergency to push through a series of decrees on 25 March 2020 that gave greater freedom to employers, allowing them to extend daily and weekly working hours, to suspend entitlements on paid holidays and rest periods.

Yet despite deregulatory reforms over recent years, the standard, open-ended contract (contrat à durée indéterminée) is still the norm in France, constituting the largest share of current employment (88 per cent) with fixed term contracts (contrat à durée déterminée) constituting 12 per cent of salaried employees. Workers benefit from good sick pay protection and France has 9th highest sick pay of all OECD countries for workers absent due to Covid or quarantine.

Officially sanctioned

Precarious workers have always been at greater risk of harm or death through their daily work. Judith Butler, in ‘Frames of war: When is life grievable?’, describes precarity as ‘the politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks becoming differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death’.

What distinguishes the Covid-19 period, is that exposure to death was officially sanctioned by government in the name of a national health emergency. The Office for National Statistics found that the highest Covid death rates in the UK were among ‘low-skilled elementary occupations’ and specific jobs have noticeable higher death rates – including taxi drivers, chauffeurs, chefs, bus and coach drivers, sales and retail assistants. People working in social care were twice as likely to die of coronavirus as the general working population.

Similarly, a French study of Covid 19 and social inequalities found that precarious workers were one of the groups most exposed to contracting the virus and in particular, sectors including social and health care, food production, retail, transport, industrial production. Another study found that the highest Covid-19 death rates in the Paris region were in the deprived suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, where the majority of the working population have low-paid and insecure jobs as cleaners, carers, taxi-drivers or factory workers.

While essential workers have been celebrated as heroes in the UK and France, in practice they have been treated as a form of cannon fodder who could legitimately be sacrificed in the higher interests of the economy.

While the UK and French governments pursued a similar policy line in response to the health crisis that gave priority to economic interests, pre-existing labour regulations meant that French workers were comparatively better protected and less exposed to avoidable death in the workplace than their UK counterparts.

The absence of decent sick pay in the UK has meant that workers have been routinely exposed to death in order to survive.

Top of the page






As the UK worked through third lockdown, Leeds University French studies professor Sarah Waters compares how governments protected essential workers in France and the UK. She says while these workers were hit hard in both countries, the UK workers came off worst.


Who is essential?
Not a lockdown
Au travail
Labour markets
Officially sanctioned

Hazards webpages
Hazards news
Work and health

See the dedicated Hazards coronavirus resources pages.