Introduction: The Enduring Dangers of Essentializing Labor and Laborers


  • Abigail Rosas



This special issue of Kalfou on “The Enduring Dangers of Essentializing Labor and Laborers” identifies and examines the diversity of ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to two definitions of the word “essential.” On the one hand, service and production workers manufacturing and selling vital goods have been tagged with the title “essential workers” because their labor is needed to enable society to survive the pandemic. A grossly disproportionate percentage of these workers are immigrants and children of immigrants, African Americans, Latinx, and women. They are allowed—and in some cases required—to suspend social distancing and safety measures because the work they do is necessary. Yet in being declared essential, they have also been rendered disposable: susceptible to disease at their workplaces while deprived of proper protective equipment and adequate healthcare. As the articles in this issue demonstrate, these workers have become “essentialized” in another sense of the word—reduced to the essence of bare life and labor, treated as if underpaid service and physical sacrifice are their natural roles in life, defining their being. The authors gathered here explore how people deemed essential have been devalued as disposable, as well as how diverse people and social institutions have attempted to come to terms with the pandemic’s deadly toll by offering oppositional ideas about what—and who—is truly essential.