March 17, 2020

Applying Sociology of Work and Organizations Concepts to the COVID-19 Pandemic

author photoBy Colby King

During spring break this past week, I was grading midterm exams from my Sociology of Work and organizations class while also following the news about the spread of COVID-19. Karen Sternheimer wrote the other day about how we can apply the sociological imagination to better understand the ongoing situation with the disease. I also saw ways in which the pandemic vividly illustrates some of the sociological concepts in the exam I was grading.

On March 11, Megha Rajagopalan at BuzzFeed posted a report about how a migrant worker at Saudi Aramco’s headquarters was made to dress as hand sanitizer. Pictures of the worker were shared on Twitter. In the pictures you can see the man is wearing a face mask and gloves, and over his khakis and shirt he is also wearing a box with the words “HAND SANITIZER” at the top and “Office Services” at the bottom (in English) and also an actual hand sanitizer dispenser attached to the front of the box.

Outrage grew after several images of this worker dressed in this hand sanitizer outfit were shared widely on Twitter and other social media. Observers noted obvious problems with this situation, including racism and the apparent exploitative working conditions for this migrant worker. Rajagopalan noted this was done in a context in which Saudi Aramco, “has been plagued by scandal after scandal around systematic mistreatment of its several million migrant workers.”

I was also struck by how these photos and the worker’s apparent job illustrate so many of the concepts we have been covering in my Sociology of Work and Organizations class. We are using Sweet and Meiksins’ (2017) Changing Contours of Work: Job Opportunities in the New Economy, 3rd edition as the course textbook, which useful definitions for many of these concepts.

  • Agency: this refers to the extent to which workers have control over their working conditions, including the range of choices available to them. Sweet and Meiksins (2017) define it as “personal effort and discretion whether as individuals or in groups, to direct actions and decisions” (3). Many jobs are made to be more routine over time, which may simplify work and increase efficiency, but often also reduces the worker’s agency. This migrant worker providing hand sanitizer does not appear to have much agency in how he does this job.
  • Risk: Sweet and Meiksins note that a focus in the sociology of work is to examine who bears the burdens of risk, and to analyze how risks are shifted back and forth between workers and employers (page 88-90). Of course, both employers and workers are burned by the risks imposed by this pandemic, but in the case of this specific migrant worker providing hand sanitizer to colleagues, we can see how the organization was shifting risks onto that particular worker, by making him interact in close proximity with colleagues at a time when many health officials are encouraging social distancing. The situation also makes me wonder, if this worker were to get sick, would he have paid sick leave available?
  • Interactive service work: this is work that involves direct personal encounters and a need for the worker to interact effectively, managing interactions in a way that is satisfactory to clients or other people involved. Sometimes this is referred to as “people skills” or “soft skills.” While this kind of work has been a component of work throughout history, it has become more prominent in post-industrial economies with growing service industries. Importantly, in the new economy much interactive service work is highly scripted, and as Sweet and Meiksins explain, “interaction constraints can be experienced as oppressive and intrusive by both workers and customers” (37). While this worker may have been interacting with colleagues and not just customers of Saudi Aramco, the interaction between this worker and others is a defining characteristic of this apparent job. A key difference between the hand sanitizer on his box and one on a wall somewhere else in the building is the opportunity for people to interact with him.
  • Alienation: this term was applied by Marx to describe how a worker can develop a sense that they are separated from their own work, or as Guy Standing explains, “having to do what they do not wish to do while being unable to do what they would like to do and are capable of doing.” With the elaborate costume, protective gear, limits to agency and heightened risk, we can see how this worker is alienated from their job. The idea of having a worker dress as a hand sanitizer dispenser is dehumanizing on its face but combined with the limits on the worker’s agency in this particular role we can see how the worker could feel quite detached from their job.

These are just a few of the many sociological concepts we can apply in understanding what was happening with this worker at Saudi Aramco. Applying the sociological imagination here, I think also causes us to ask what was being accomplished by having this worker do this job? Maybe more people noticed the hand sanitizer and were therefore more likely to use it.

It’s also very possible, though, that by putting a migrant worker in this outfit, the organization implies (accidentally or not) that this worker is different from others and might also heighten a misguided and racist concern that migrant workers are vectors for disease. Concerns about this, the way in which this job situation seems to create racist social constructs is at the root of much of the outrage that emerged after these photos were shared.

Rajagopalan explains that she received no response after contacting Saudi Aramco’s public relations firm. But, Saudi Aramco did post a statement on Twitter in Arabic saying that it was “strongly dissatisfied” with the situation. As Rajagopalan notes, the statement, “left unclear who had arranged for the man to be dispensing hand sanitizer in the company's lobby or why. The post did not include an apology to the man himself.”

In her recent post, Karen Sternheimer highlighted how “The most economically vulnerable are likely to experience economic effects of the pandemic.” This story of the worker-as-hand-sanitizer also shows again how disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic often harm those who are already marginalized the most.

This is just one story of one worker, though. Have you seen other stories about marginalized workers in increasingly difficult circumstances as a result of the spread of COVID-19? Have you seen policy responses to protect these people? I know many municipalities, like the city of Pittsburgh, have already moved to provide at least some paid sick leave to all workers, and some cities, like New Orleans, are suspending evictions in response to the outbreak. How else is this pandemic causing us to reconsider how we do our work, what our organizations expect of their workers, and what we expect for how the broader economy is structured?


The new coronavirus (COVID-19) is spreading fast. It has already infected more than 211,800 people from different countries and killed over 8,700 since December 2019.

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