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Bezos, Branson, & Big Pharma: the real villains in the hellscape of coronavirus

This International Worker's Day, we take a trip to the inner rings of hell to find out who is profiting in a pandemic.

01 May 2020

It’s remarkable how the scum bubbles to the surface when you turn up the heat, or as Gurpreet Dhariwal writes for Medium, how “people reveal their true colours in times of crisis”. Living under late capitalism, most of us have a taste of how big corporations exploit workers and natural resources, and that a government that prioritises profit over people is only jettisoning us deeper into the abyss of inequality. However, the context of coronavirus throws injustice into sharper relief. Coronavirus is compounding oppressions along lines of class, race, gender, disability and more. Key illustrations of this include the mounting pressure on food banks, huge surges in applications to Universal Credit, and continued incarceration of people in prisons and detention centres against all common sense… 

We’re observing just how desperately capitalism races to the bottom of the barrel; offering the very minimum of working and living standards, while still trying to make as much cash as possible for those at the top. It could feel ridiculous to imagine that governments and companies could continue to push their profit-hungry agendas in a time of global health crisis, but consider my mind boggled. Want to know who is trying to dodge accountability, screw over workers, and increase their share price in a time of coronavirus? We’ve put together a wall of shame, spotlighting the real villains of Covid-19:

1. The Tory government and everyone who voted for it

Could anyone have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic? Well, a WHO report published in September 2019 begins: “there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people”, so kinda. Either way, if the government hadn’t gutted the NHS and started selling it off in small chunks, we’d be much better equipped to care for the victims of the virus in the UK, more than 16% of whom are people of colour (PoC). Ten years of austerity-driven funding cuts have left the NHS with reduced budgets and an increased patient demand, a stress that falls heavy on the shoulders of the large numbers of PoC healthcare workers. The Kings Fund reported in 2017 that pressures on the NHS were “severe and show no sign of easing”, and that smaller budgets had led to increased stress on staff to deliver the same outcomes with fewer resources. The context of coronavirus has only increased pressure on NHS workers, with the government failing to even provide workers with enough personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, aprons and gloves, let alone enough staff to deliver the levels of care needed.

2. Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group 

It’s hard to know where to start with a multinational venture capital conglomerate such as Virgin, but let’s begin with the headlines. Virgin founder Richard Branson has a net worth of £4.2bn. The parent company of Virgin is registered in the British Virgin Islands, and Richard has been living on Necker Island (which he owns) and tax-dodging for the past 14 years. Some of Virgin’s dodgy dealings include (until recently) carrying out deportations from the UK via its airline fleet Virgin Atlantic, and in 2016 suing NHS England, six Clinical Commissioning Groups, and Surrey County Council when it didn’t win a contract with the NHS. It’s questionable then, on many levels, that Virgin Money Giving are collecting the cash raised by Run for Heroes, a Covid-focused campaign raising £5m for the NHS, and siphoning off a chunk for admin fees. Virgin Atlantic have also told its workers to take eight weeks of unpaid leave to offset the profits lost due to travel restrictions.

3. Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO 

The CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, has increased his net worth by £19bn during the Covid-19 pandemic so far. Let’s deep that for a hot sec. Last year, NHS England had a budget of £114bn. This means that Jeff’s increase in net worth – an extra slab of wealth on top of his £92bn fortune – is equivalent to a sixth of all the cash the NHS has to provide healthcare for the whole of England.

Despite the unfathomable wealth sloshing around in Jeff’s bank account, it’s no secret that Amazon’s treatment of its workers falls far, far, short of the mark. Workers for the multinational company have been calling for improved working conditions for years. Last year, Ken Loach’s award-winning film Sorry We Missed You shone a light on the poor treatment of zero-hours delivery workers for companies like Amazon, who have no financial security and are expected to work gruelling hours with little or no breaks in order to meet unrealistic productivity targets. The introduction of a new device that shines a beam of light on the item a worker needs to pick has eliminated the “micro-rests” that happen when a worker is looking for the next item, and the installation of painkiller vending machines in warehouses makes it evident that the repetitive stress injuries workers commonly report are understood by Amazon as just “part of the job” that must be endured. 

The context of coronavirus has only ramped up exploitation and violations of labour rights: last month, after a protest at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, a lead organiser was sacked, and workers report that warehouses have been kept open even as staff test positive for Covid-19. Some organisers are calling for consumers to: boycott Amazon if and where they can (particularly for non-essential items); make purchases direct from sellers rather than via Amazon; publicly support workers’ petitions, protests and walkouts on social media; donate to Amazon worker-led mutual aid networks; and to leave an appreciative sign, wipes and hand sanitiser outside your door for delivery drivers.

4. Donald Trump, US president

Two weeks ago, Donald Trump announced that the US would be pulling hundreds of millions of dollars of funding out of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and accused the WHO of “severely mismanaging” the pandemic. Critics have suggested that Donald is simply trying to avert attention from his own inaction around the coronavirus. It seems likely that cutting funding will weaken the WHO’s ability to act, in turn hitting communities who face barriers to accessing healthcare the hardest. Meanwhile, Donald’s administration continues to try and repeal the US’ affordable healthcare programme “Obamacare”, without even proposing a vision for an alternative.

Reports last month that Donald had attempted to buy exclusive rights to a vaccine against Covid-19 reveals the US president’s true priorities in a pandemic. Welt am Sonntag reported that Donald offered a German medical company $1bn to secure the vaccine for the US only, but the German health minister stated that a vaccine would be developed in Germany “for the whole world” and “not for individual countries”.

5. Big pharma in general

The pharmaceutical industry (or “Big Pharma”) wields immense power over global health by creating stigma and moral panic around certain viruses in order to sell drugs, financially incentivising doctors and health care providers to promote and over-prescribe drugs, and setting sky-high prices for drugs which push patients into debt and destitution. Big Pharma will be looking to profit from a coronavirus vaccine, and this issue is set to be particularly bad in the US where there are barely any price controls –an approach which corporate lobbyists hope to extend to the UK. In March, Republicans opposed the inclusion of a clause to the US coronavirus bill that would limit Big Pharma’s ability to profit, arguing that it would “stifle research and innovation”.

6. Investment banks, hedge funds and private equity firms

Many people are experiencing intense hardship and struggling to repay loans due to the impacts of coronavirus on income (meaning – less importantly – that banks are experiencing losses). Meanwhile, investment firms including Somerset Capital Management (which Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has a considerable stake in) have called the crisis a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to profit from stocks in emerging markets such as Brazil and South Africa. It was also revealed earlier this month that hedge funds have been betting millions on market moves as investors scramble to react to the volatile market as the pandemic unfolds. Responding to news that one London hedge fund had made £2.4bn from bets, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) remarked that “It’s a sign of our broken economy that hedge fund managers are raking in billions, while care workers who are putting their lives on the line can barely scrape by”. 

The New York Times reports that many investors will be offering out high-interest loans to small businesses who are falling on hard times. Whereas other investors may even see the pandemic as an opportunity to renegotiate more favourable deal terms or even walk away – such as MidCap Financial, who just backed out of a $20m loan it had offered to Senior Care Centers, a nursing home operator based in Texas. “Market crashes provide opportunities”, writes Megan Boxall for Investors Chronicle this month “especially for those who don’t have pressing financial concerns”. Good for them.

7. Hospitality, travel and entertainment businesses

Of course, the usual suspects are moving mad and forcing workers to choose between enduring unsafe working conditions or taking unpaid leave (or being sacked where leave isn’t an option). LabourList has created a rolling list of bad businesses, including Wetherspoons who in March told their 43,000 staff they would not pay them until government pay schemes kicked in, and were forced to make a U-turn after workers organised the #SpoonStrike. Wetherspoons workers have now joined staff from other high street chains such as McDonalds, Burger King and KFC to push their bosses to top up the 80% of their pay they are currently receiving through the furlough scheme. 

Easyjet, Ryanair, Capita (who provide escorts in government deportations) and Picturehouse are also on the list. Picturehouse, which is owned by Cineworld, initially made staff redundant with immediate effect and only offered notice pay. Cineworld, along with Odeon and Empire, have now said they will reverse redundancies and furlough staff (who will receive 80% of their pay for a limited period through the government scheme), but the Cineworld Action Group are still awaiting a public apology for their treatment, and ask that bosses top up the 20% wage cut workers are experiencing.

8. Some retail businesses

LabourList notes that Matalan, Boohoo (who had to remove its fashion face mask from sale after admitting that it was not protective) and PrettyLittleThing (who claims to be “strictly adhering” to government guidelines despite keeping its warehouse open when two workers were sent home with Covid-19 symptoms) all still have operational warehouses. Similarly, this month Sports Direct, who was refused a government Covid-19 bail out as it finally paid a £588m tax bill, told suppliers it would only be paying 80% of their outstanding invoices. Wilko has also been accused of putting workers and customers at risk, and last month GMB union had to step in and pressure the company to reverse its new plans to cut or completely retract sick pay entitlement for tens of thousands of employees.

Last month ASOS also came under fire for forcing employees to continue carrying out work in crowded warehouses, sharing tools, and without sufficient PPE. According to a poll by trade union GMB, 90% of ASOS employees feel unsafe at work, and a union organiser called the warehouses a “hotbed of infection”. Despite the fact that ASOS has managed to raise £247m this month through selling shares and is now offering warehouse space to the NHS, goodwill and savings don’t seem to be set to trickle down to its own workers. Earlier this month, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) revealed that ASOS was planning to ditch delivery drivers and switch to a new provider in order to cut costs, and campaign group Labour Behind the Label noted that ASOS had been attempting to push losses onto suppliers. They will be holding ASOS accountable to “find mutually-agreeable solutions, with the protection of workers a priority”, but as of last week, all of ASOS’ warehouses are still operational.

9. Some courier and private hire driver companies

The IWGB have created this excellent spreadsheet detailing courier and delivery companies’ sick pay provision (spoiler alert: it’s largely non-existent) and response to coronavirus. A common theme is that workers are experiencing pay drops due to low demand, and employers’ responses are mixed, with some recommending staff use annual leave to take time off to self-quarantine, and others offering one-off short term relief payments, or setting up hardship funds which workers report are “impossible to access”. Some household names include CitySprint, who haven’t provided PPE and have implemented some pay cuts; Addison Lee who have also not provided PPE or a hardship fund; UberEats, which, drivers anecdotally report, is encouraging workers to report on each other, and which can deactivate delivery partners if they are suspected to have the virus, and JustEat encourage drivers to use a substitute if they feel ill. According to the IWGB, Deliveroo have “probably done the most to use the #COVID19 crisis to try and improve their reputation. They’ve also worked the hardest to deny their fleet basic rights, which are needed now more than ever”. 

Uber has also been working hard to improve its commercial image, offering subsidised rides for NHS staff, but like many of the companies listed in this wall of shame, they are failing to demonstrate the same level of generosity to its own workers, many of whom are forced to continue working even if they have Covid-19 symptoms. In March, Uber driver Rajesh Jayaseelan, 44, died of Covid-19 after his landlord changed the locks. Many workers are in the same situation as Rajesh – with no choice but to continue working due to private hire companies not offering sick pay.

The common thread is: like many of us turning to DIY and home improvement during lockdown, companies are seeing coronavirus as a time to both turn a buck and repair reputational damage. However, unlike us, the best efforts of commerce multinationals like Amazon and gig economy giants like Uber and Deliveroo are thin, fragile veneers over a long history of treating their workers like disposable cannon fodder in the battle to build their corporate empires. The difficult reality is that boycotting these companies is often impractical if you need essential supplies delivered quickly, or impossible in the case of Big Pharma. Organising at the grassroots level is the most effective way forwards: we can all join unions, support strikes and picket lines, and back workers who are organising for better conditions year-round, not just during a pandemic. 

Knowing that the financial sector is primed and ready to make gains off people and small businesses being pushed into financial difficulties means that many of us will be leaning on local-level support mechanisms such as mutual aid networks. In the post-coronavirus landscape, those of us with headspace, energy and resources can use our lived experience of participating in these alternative systems to strengthen and sustain alternative structures long-term. The real villains of Covid-19 are not the virus itself. At a macro level, we are fighting the powerful forces of centuries of oppression, which mean that marginalised people are hit the hardest by the impacts of the pandemic. The global pandemic opens up imaginative space to consider a world where our labour and leisure are valued: this International Workers’ Day, we can dream bigger than the broken systems that keep us tethered to structures of inequality.