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Essential for what? A global social reproduction view on the re-organisation of work during the Covid-19 pandemic

Updated Monday, 19 December 2022

Around the world, the pandemic overturned our ways of working. For many workers the pandemic caused losses of work, increased unemployment, informality, reduced incomes, business closures. Around the world all but essential workers stayed at home. But what exactly is “essential work”?  Employers and authorities were slow to ensure adequately safe working conditions for many of them.

This content is associated with The Open University's Economics courses and qualifications.

On 22 June 2022, OU Economics hosted a seminar with Dr Sara Stevano of SOAS, University of London, and Dr Michal Nahman of The University of the West of England, and co-curator of the ‘This Is Essential Work’ online exhibition. The event was chaired by Susan Newman, Professor in Economics at The Open University and co-curator of the ‘This Is Essential Work’ online exhibition. Artists from around the world who created work for the exhibition joined the event to share their views on essential work.


Watch the trailer below for the seminar, Essential for what? A global social reproduction view on the re-organisation of work during Covid-19.

PDF document Transcript 14.6 KB

Learning outcomes

After exploring the material, you will have an understanding of what social reproduction is and what a social reproduction lens can illuminate about the impact of the pandemic. You will learn about feminist political economy and what it means for forms of labour that have predominantly been viewed as de-valued: care work, cleaning, nursing, to be re-labelled as ‘essential’ during the pandemic. 

You will explore the interaction of theoretical lenses and the practical work of artists, through the intersectional feminist exhibition ‘This Is Essential Work’ which explores different aspects of domestic care work during the pandemic.  

Essential for what?

‘‘The conditions created by the pandemic drive home the fact that we essential workers – workers in general – are the ones who keep the social orders from sinking into chaos. Yet we are treated with the utmost disrespect, as though we’re expendable.’ wrote Sujatha Gidla on 5 May 2020 in the New York Times.’ (Stevano, Rosimina, Jamieson, 2021). 

In this video, Dr Sara Stevano provides a mapping of meanings of essential work that resulted from her research on how this terminology was used in different ways in the Global South and North. Explore how Covid exacerbated poverty, and widened gender and social inequalities. 

PDF document Transcript 40.7 KB

Commodification of social reproduction

The commercialisation of breast milk provision and its trade across borders raises new questions for studies on social reproduction and discourses on motherhood and child development.  

In this video Dr Michal Nahman explores the motivation behind the research on commercial human milk chain in India, and how this led her and her co-author, Professor Newman, onto the curation of the ‘This is Essential Work’ exhibition. 

Transcript (PDF document25.5 KB)

This is essential work

Artists from the ‘This Is Essential Work’ shared their experiences and motivations behind their artwork. Listen to the voices of numerous artists from across a range of countries that speak to the questions about the value of reproductive work today.

Transcript (PDF document41.5 KB)

Further learning materials

This Is Essential Work: an online open-access intersectional feminist exhibition 

Stevano, S, Rosimina A., and Jamieson, M., (2021), Essential Work: Using A Social Reproduction Lens to Investigate the Re-Organisation of Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic, SOAS Department of Economics Working Paper, No. 241, London: SOAS University of London. 

Stevano, S, Rosimina A., and Jamieson, M., (2021), Essential for what? A global social reproduction view on the re-organisation of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Volume 42 (1-2),  

Newman, S and Nahman, M. (2021), Nurture commodified? An investigation into commercial human milk supply chains, Review of International Political Economy (Early Access).  

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