Nfld. & Labrador·Apocalypse Then

Pandemics and labour: COVID-19 isn't the first time there's been upheaval at work

COVID-19 has sparked much conversation about labour, working conditions and fair pay, Ainsley Hawthorn writes in the latest segment of her Apocalypse Then series. It's not the first time the labour market has undergone dramatic change.

COVID-19 is not the first time the labour market has undergone dramatic change

A medieval illustration from the Queen Mary Psalter (ca. 1310-20) shows three men harvesting grain while an overseer stands behind them with a rod. (Public domain)

Over the past year, COVID-19 has unexpectedly sparked a public conversation about labour, working conditions and fair pay.

The designation of "essential workers" during lockdowns made it clear how reliant we are as a society not only on first responders and health professionals, but on often-undervalued workers, like retail clerks and cleaning staff.

Temporary pay increases for front-line employees during lockdown periods, instead of creating widespread goodwill for the grocery stores and other companies that instituted them, have drawn attention to how inadequate the income of most front-line workers really is.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, this rollback of "hero pay" preceded Dominion grocery store staff going on strike for 12 weeks. The strike ended with a collective agreement that contained only marginal pay increases.

Pandemics often change labour conditions and affect the way societies value their workers.

From 1347, when it infiltrated the Crimea, until it burnt itself out in 1353, the Black Death killed at least a third of Europe's population. In cities like London, bodies were piled five deep in mass graves.

Despite the devastation, most places returned to a type of normalcy relatively quickly. The plague did its worst damage within a few months, and life typically resumed its usual routine by the following year. 

Forging ahead, somehow

What choice did survivors have but to forge ahead? Crops had to be sown and harvested, livestock had to be tended, clothing had to be made and mended, and city infrastructure had to be maintained. 

All of a sudden, though, the number of people available to work had plummeted, a fact that would irrevocably change Europe's economic landscape.

The radical cleric John Ball, on horseback, fires up a group of rebels during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. From an illustrated manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles. (Public domain)

Before the Black Death, peasants and labourers had very little bargaining power. After centuries of population increase, there was intense competition for what work was available.

Many lower-class people were bound to a landholder as serfs. In exchange for cultivating the land they occupied, serfs owed services or rent to their landlord. They often had no right to leave the land they lived on and could sometimes be sold along with the land itself.

As is the case with most pandemics, the lower classes were most severely affected by the Black Death. The mortality rate for English peasants seems to have been more than 50 per cent, while the death toll for landowners was closer to 27 per cent.

The peasants who survived the ravages of the plague soon realized they had the upper hand in the post-plague economy. The high mortality in their ranks had created an extreme labour shortage. Villages had emptied out, fields were overgrown, and livestock roamed the countryside.

Migrating for the best work conditions

Labourers could now set their own terms, and they began moving from place to place in search of the most lucrative offers.

Wages for lower-class workers rose drastically. In Oxfordshire; a plowman who had earned two shillings per week before the plague could command 10 shillings per week afterward. Pay rates for artisans increased, too. In Paris, wages for masons quadrupled between 1351 and 1355.

Peasants reap and rake hay in an illumination by the Limbourg brothers from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, circa 1412-16. (Public domain)

The new mobility and clout of the peasantry was terrifying for the upper classes, since most aristocrats were reliant on cheap labour. They made their money from the cultivation of the land they owned, and the wage hikes cut into their income.

To satisfy the unhappy elites, governments enacted legislation aimed at controlling wages. England passed an Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 and a Statute of Labourers in 1351, designed to cap wages at pre-plague levels and prevent peasants from moving around in search of better working conditions. 

Places like France, Castille, and Florence also announced wage freezes, limiting remuneration for everyone from stable boys and wet nurses to soldiers and notaries.

'Malice of employees'

The wording of some of these laws reveals how much the aristocracy resented the newfound economic power of the lower classes. The Statute of Labourers rails against "the malice of employees, who were idle and were not willing to take employment after the pestilence unless for outrageous wages."

Ultimately, these regulations had little effect. Labour was in such short supply that landlords and other employers couldn't afford to ignore market conditions. 

French peasants wielding farm implements revolt in an illustration from a manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles. (Public domain)

In fact, as workers became more independent and financially stable, they began to agitate for even more rights, culminating in popular rebellions at the end of the century.

In the 1378 Ciompi Revolt in Florence, artisans pressed for greater guild protections and political representation, while, in the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England, protesters demanded lower taxes and an end to serfdom. 

In the end, the 150 years after the Black Death were a golden age for medieval workers.

More people bought their own land, labourers earned higher incomes, and the feudal system that had kept peasants under the thumb of wealthy landowners for centuries declined and eventually vanished.

We're not facing the same astronomical mortality and precipitous population decline that medieval Europeans did during the Black Death.

Still, COVID-19 may put a premium on jobs that are now considered more dangerous or more essential than they were before the pandemic.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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