Labour Biopolitics and Covid-19:

Lessons from Latinx Migrant Workers in the USA

22 March 2021

Paul Apostolidis London School of Economics and Political Science

In January 2021, I was honoured to participate in the roundtable ‘Our Intense Biopolitical Present: COVID and Before’ convened by the ‘Rethinking Modern Greek Studies in the 21st Century’ network and hosted by TORCH at Oxford. I do not work in Modern Greek Studies, but I was excited to take part in this conversation in the spirit encouraged by the network, which seeks to provide an expansive context for analysing issues that surface in Greece whilst resonating with cultural and political phenomena elsewhere. Thus, I came to our discussion as someone whose research combines critical theory with fieldwork among Latinx migrant workers’ organisations in the United States.

The roundtable generated provocative exchanges on biopolitical states of ‘emergency’ (how extensive is the legal supervision of crisis-response measures?), the ‘archaeopolitics’ of national culture (how do the symbolic effects of public images prepare a population for biopolitical management?), and activist practises of ‘care’ (how might we envision ‘biopolitics from below’?), among other topics. This blog stems from my comments on another prominent theme at the roundtable: biopolitics in domains of labour in the time of pandemic.

Surges and resurgences of Covid-19 cases across the globe have been accompanied by dramatic advances of biopolitical power. Astonishingly, neoliberal states enamoured with austerity have launched massive programmes to prevent the spread of disease, bolster incomes and expand health care provision. Less surprising, but no less significant for the viral spread of biopolitical mechanisms, have been the intensification of data-gathering about national populations’ bodily health and the bulked-up policing of national borders.

Given these developments, it makes sense that analysts of biopolitics in the time of Covid would be drawn to study government programmes, whether in Greece or elsewhere. Foucault’s fascination with state biopower, political economy and medical science, in his formative investigations of biopolitics, also guides our gaze toward these institutions. Of further relevance for Greece today is reflection on how the coronavirus affects the production and disposition of ‘bare life’ in refugee camps, in ways drawing on Agamben.

Yet Covid-19 signals just as strong an imperative to examine biopolitics in the realm of hazardous labour. In this regard, studies of biopolitics in modern Greece can benefit from attending to the biopolitical management of Latinx migrant workers in the US, the pandemic’s relation to such processes and Latinx workers’ contestations of biopolitical power.

The pandemic has intensified racially unequal disease-risks and suffering in the world of work. Those classified as ‘essential workers’ have been disproportionately non-white and migrant. They have been compelled, either by dire economic need or by government mandate, as in Trump’s 2020 order that meatpacking workers stay at their posts, to report to jobs in public transport, hospital care, food production, warehousing and delivery functions. Through their labours, they have kept core social systems operational for all, but they have also shouldered aggravated, lethal risk to service those sheltering at home.

This form of social domination has a history, even though the crisis is now. Especially since the onset of neoliberal deregulation but also predating this era, the realm of employment has long enabled the racially privileged to thrive by exposing racially subordinate workers to higher risks of disease, disability and death. The problem is that even as Covid causes biopolitical labour to fluoresce when we see reports on the infection risks faced by essential workers, fixating on virus control measures tends to displace attention from long-standing mechanisms of biopolitics in migrant work.

Meatpacking in the US illustrates this effect of displacement. American slaughterhouses and meat processing plants are staffed largely by Latinx migrants and African Americans. News stories have exposed the perils of viral transmission when workers labour ‘elbow to elbow’ along production lines in beef, chicken and pork production facilities. Yet long before the risk arose of Covid on a co-worker’s breath, the close positioning of workstations in meat factories had begun posing severe health and safety hazards. One of the most common injuries in this occupation is getting slashed by a co-worker’s knife. Lacerations abound because workers stand ‘shoulder to shoulder,’ although also because of the way tight spacing interacts with the technical engineering of production.

Above all, meatpacking workers get injured with appalling frequency because the line speeds in these automated plants are so inhumanly rapid. Apart from knife cuts, the speed of the line has generated a protracted epidemic of crippling muscular and skeletal disorders, especially in the absence of effective ergonomic standards. Thus, working while in ill health is not a new phenomenon in meatpacking, even though the scandal of workers receiving no paid time off to recover from Covid has made it seem that way. (John Oliver’s 21 February commentary about American meatpacking was a rare and welcome exception to this trend.)

Also displaced from public view is the biopolitical schema that emerges through coordinated actions of the meat industry and the deportation regime. As I argued in my book Breaks in the Chain, Latinx migrants are exposed to deadly traumas that are unleashed sequentially on the militarised border and in the food industry. Public commentators normalise this dimension of biopolitics when they observe racial inequalities in Covid deaths and infections and pinpoint dangers in meatpacking but fail to contextualise these problems by considering racial capitalism’s cooperation with the racial state.

Nevertheless, the current sensitisation to occupational health and safety threats due to the pandemic could provide a point of departure for more far-reaching critique and opposition to biopolitics. Biopolitical formations are not only institutional strategies of domination: they are also products of hegemony, built through dynamics of popular consent. They gain strength, for instance, when Mexican migrants narrate terrifying midnight border-crossings, and labour amid the human and animal carnage in the slaughterhouse, in terms of powerless subjection to blind fate, as many understandably do.

Precisely as the result of hegemony, however, labour biopolitics is vulnerable to popular contestation. Alternative forms of ‘common sense’ can take hold of working people’s narrative imaginations, especially when sustained organising challenges ordinary workers to exert extraordinary leadership from below. Thus, the nationally resonant labour struggle at a Tyson Foods beef plant that I studied drew upon participants’ personal bravery in response to abuses on the migrant trail and the factory floor to foment resolute collection action.

Migrant meatpacking work in America also reminds us that even as biopolitical regimes differentiate the fates of distinctly racialised populations, these power-formations entangle all in common mechanisms of governance and risk. Super-high line speeds endanger workers and consumers alike, multiplying injury hazards in the factory and boosting the chances of meat contamination. Migrant activists at Tyson leveraged such overlaps in building a multi-racial community support network for their movement.

Similarly, workplace Covid threats point elliptically to predicaments that afflict working people throughout the economy. Our new consciousness about unhealthy air doesn’t have to focus only on the individualised menace of a colleague’s exhalation. We can also demand that employers and governments invest in better air circulation machinery, given the rising respiratory hazards from increased indoor work, as much for Amazon’s warehouse workers as its office employees.

Opportunities exist in this moment for building broad solidarity to oppose biopolitical governance in its racially targeted and generalised aspects, alike. Such efforts can take inspiration from the political courage and innovations of migrant workers, perhaps not only in US Latinx communities but among migrants in Greece as well.

"UFCW protest for Smithfield workers" by uusc4all is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Paul Apostolidis is Associate Professorial Lecturer in the Government Department of the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of The Fight for Time: Migrant Day Laborers and the Politics of Precarity (Oxford University Press 2019), Breaks in the Chain: What Immigrant Workers Can Teach America about Democracy (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), and other books and articles on critical theory and Latinx migrant workers’ organizations based on participatory-action fieldwork and popular education.