Human development and responsible guardianship of our planet must go hand in hand

Human development and responsible guardianship of our planet must go hand in hand

The recently published UNDP Human Development Report shows that we’ve come a long way in recognising the damage we’re doing to the planet and how intricately connected natural resource use ...

Seeds of resistance: Palestinian farmers fight against annexation and pandemic

Seeds of resistance: Palestinian farmers fight against annexation and pandemic

The violent Israeli encroachment and annexation of Palestinian land is compromising the future of the West Bank and putting its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. Palestinians are resisting both ...

COVID-19 | How COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities in academia

The COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore gendered and racialised aspects of precarity that were steeping in academia long before the virus emerged. The increased burden of unpaid care work, still mostly borne by female academics, has skewed research output. Casualised staff, many of them early-career and/or international researchers, are expected to withstand the worst of the crisis, with their job security under threat. What action can academics take to challenge these negative developments? We need a post-pandemic vision, writes María Gabriela Palacio.

Man with laptop in the dark

COVID-19 has illuminated deep-seated inequalities overlooked during ‘normal’ times. As we grapple with the extent and severity of the outbreak, we have been required to isolate and contemplate the cessation of economic activities. The fragility of our systems has been thrown into sharp relief, evincing that it is not necessarily the virus, but the lack of regulation and protection that amplifies inequalities among us.

What is work? What is essential?

COVID-19 gave us a new grammar to talk about what we do and how it is valued: essential and non-essential work. What we now consider essential work is the kind of work that our economies have systematically devalued. Health workers have been at the forefront of the response, with many women and minority ethnic communities at the lower tier of the healthcare system, working in underfunded systems without the necessary compensation and protective equipment. Many do work that is neither considered essential nor ‘work’.

Women’s unpaid work has increased as lockdown measures disrupted childcare provision and increased other care obligations. School and daycare closures have created new forms of stress and anxieties among caregivers (predominantly women), with a sizeable social gradient in the extent to which families feel able to support their children and provide home schooling. Within the academe, the drop in the number of papers submitted by female academics and the skewed distribution of research grants illustrate the increased burden of unpaid care work that women shoulder.

What work is valued? What is disposable?

This crisis intersects not only with gendered but also with racialised aspects of precarity in academia. As the pandemic rages across diverse geographies and international students defer entry for a year, higher-education centres face operational challenges, resulting in recruitment freezes, contracts not being extended, or the scrapping of research projects. Early-career academics on temporary contracts—many scheduled to expire this year—are anxious about their job security. International staff members are more likely to participate in casual employment, often unable to make any long-term commitments as their residency is attached to their work status. The experiences of international and ethnic minorities often go unheard in academia as they are less likely to participate in decision-making: non-white female academics are heavily under-represented in professorial positions across the Netherlands.

These elements show that diversity in higher education has not been accompanied by a change in normativity, with tangible consequences in terms of career prospects. Academics of diverse backgrounds encounter themselves having to working harder to be accommodated in their work environment (to fit in), for example by doing more service work and being less protective of their research time (if any), thus hindering their chances in the labour market. One could consider this a sign of an increasingly fragmented and market-driven academia that fails to recognise differences.

Doing what you love is still work

Most jobs that involve ‘doing what you love’ make it more difficult to assert one’s position and demand better conditions. It is often expected of academics to be intrinsically motivated and concerned about the wellbeing of students—and the vast majority indeed are. Yet, this expectation makes it difficult for us to demand better work conditions, particularly during a crisis like the one we face today. Support and care for students have become central to our online teaching. It is assumed that in the next academic year, most teaching will continue online, supplemented with some on-campus activities.

Though new forms of work are highly welcomed, they need to be accompanied by a reflection on how these new forms of work would be valued and compensated. We need a post-pandemic vision of our institutional setting while we respond to the immediate challenges of online education, casualised employment, and intensified work demands. This is a crucial moment to reflect and raise awareness about how our experience in academia is affected by who we are (e.g. gender, race/ethnicity, citizenship) and the challenges to measure and capture the value we create. What can we do to take action and tackle the privileges and systemic inequalities that this pandemic has illuminated? A first step would be to openly appreciate academics, as an online campaign at Leiden University using the hashtags #staffshouldstay and #koesterdedocent (‘treasure the lecturer’) is doing.

Another thing you can do is to engage in discussions within your faculty and/or programme to discuss how new forms of work derived from the COVID-19 crisis, e.g. mentor programmes, will be valued and compensated. Inclusion is central to such discussions: where would this work come from? Who will be asked? How would they be compensated? Because we as academics genuinely care for students, the conditions of and compensation for this type of work tend to become afterthoughts—and they shouldn’t.

This article was originally published on the Leiden Inclusion Blog and has been written by the author in her capacity of Assistant Professor in Development Studies at the Faculty of Humanities and Chair of LUDEN: Leiden University Diversity and Equality Network. This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the author:

María Gabriela Palacio holds a PhD in Development Studies by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Her research contributes to interdisciplinary work on critical social policy and it seeks to understand how state interventions shape social and political identities. Increasingly, her research interests have expanded to include the study of processes of exclusion within academia. She is the chair of the network LUDEN, tackling racism and other forms of exclusion at Leiden University’s working and learning environment.

COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world, says ISS researcher Dorothea Hilhorst, who recently participated in a webinar organized ...

COVID-19 | How ‘COVID-19 hunger’ threatens the future of many by Jimena Pacheco

COVID-19 | How ‘COVID-19 hunger’ threatens the future of many by Jimena Pacheco

By Posted on

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses and lockdowns continue, even more people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition due to their inability to access nutritious food. The pandemic has revealed the ...

COVID-19 | Restaurants are empty, but the work continues: freelance food delivery in times of COVID-19 by Roy Huijsmans

Freelance food delivery workers have largely had to make their own decisions about working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Who are they? How has their work been affected, and how have they responded?


On Sunday 15 March at around 17:30, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced the closure of restaurants and bars as of 18:00 that same evening. I was out on the road riding for food delivery platform Deliveroo and had to pick up an order from the KFC in The Hague’s city centre a little past 18:00. When I arrived, the bouncer was in the process of making people leave the fast food restaurant and was preventing new guests from entering. He wasn’t planning on letting me in, either, until I showed him the order confirmation on my phone.

Meanwhile, a WhatsApp group for Deliveroo riders in The Hague was buzzing with activity as we tried to digest the announcement. An English-language news item summarising the prime minister’s announcement was shared. What would this mean for food delivery services, riders wondered? Many feared the worst. Indeed, already before 20:00 a first message appeared, informing other riders that another KFC restaurant in The Hague had also closed for deliveries.

Reflecting on this event a few weeks later, one rider recalled fearing that “my business was coming to a close”. Some started counting their savings and calculated for how long they could sit it out if deliveries came to a stop. A few other riders were more optimistic, though. One or two were even talking about an approaching ‘golden age’ if restaurants would remain open for deliveries only.

Staying, leaving, and getting back into it

A good number of those riding for Uber Eats and Deliveroo are highly educated migrants[1]. Platform-based food delivery work is relatively easy to get into—no knowledge of the Dutch language is required, the work is flexible, and the earnings can be good. Food delivery work is probably seldom the only reason why international riders come to or stay on in the Netherlands. Rather, it helps to realise other aspirations, including international education, generating funds for projects back home, while it also subsidises internships and pays the bills while riders look for jobs more in line with their education level.

Uncertainty about delivery work that for some is their main source of income and the health risks of doing this work in the times of COVID-19 led to at least one rider’s decision to leave the Netherlands when this was still possible, even though this meant going into a 17-day quarantine upon arrival back home.

Most riders stayed, often negotiating their decision transnationally. An Uber Eats rider from an Asian country was advised by his parents to stay in The Hague because back home many people were losing their jobs, including educated employees. Others had to put concerned families at ease who had read media reports about the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. One way of doing this was by saying that the situation in The Hague wasn’t as bad as elsewhere in Europe and that they were permitted to carry on with their work because it was “classified as an essential service”[2].

An international student said he stopped riding initially when the partial lockdown was first announced because he was “kind-of terrified”. When he later learned that food delivery work was continuing, he resumed riding. “I found a way I could help during this confusing time by doing delivery work in my break time after sitting in my room alone for a long time with eyes glued on the laptop,” he said.

The COVID-19 crisis also affected some riders in unexpected ways. Collecting a ‘zoekjaar hoogopgeleiden’ permit (search year permit for highly educated migrants) at the Dutch Immigration Office (IND) proved difficult because its offices had closed. This affected some Uber Eats riders whose student visas had expired in the midst of the partial lockdown. Uber Eats then automatically deactivated their user accounts, and getting them to reopen them based on the documentation for their ‘zoekjaar’ permit[3] took many phone calls and led to various days without an income.

Making money while trying to stay safe

As freelance workers, it is largely riders’ own responsibility to stay safe. Both platform companies have implemented so-called ‘contact-free’ delivery procedures, but what this means differs from restaurant to restaurant and in terms of what is practically possible when delivering the food to customers’ homes.

Riders are very much aware that food delivery during the COVID-19 outbreak carries a risk. Especially in places where one knows things have been touched a lot by many different people (e.g. crowded student flats) and you have to touch that button or hold that door handle, “you know there is something wrong, but you have to [do it]”, one Deliveroo rider remarked. He tried to stay safe by using gloves when hand sanitising gel was hard to obtain and has been using a scarf that Deliveroo distributed as ‘free winterwear’ because the surgical masks available in the open market were disposable ones.

An Uber Eats rider echoed similar concerns and said “for me it [food delivery work] is not safe, but I try my best to make myself safe”. He did this as follows: “I always bring my kit [tissue, hand sanitiser, etc.], and keep distance”. His main concern was that he might pick up the virus and infect his housemates with whom he shares his accommodation: “if I go outside and get corona, they will get it, too”.

For Uber Eats riders, the first weeks of the partial lockdown were quite good financially. It was even referred to as a ‘golden age’ by one rider because of the temporary bonus schemes, such as getting an additional €5 after having completed four orders, and then an additional bonus for each subsequent order. For the Deliveroo riders, business has definitely been slower during the partial lockdown. One rider guessed that his earnings were probably down to half of what he usually makes, but he was hesitant to ascribe it to the COVID-19 crisis, as there were various other factors, too. Reflecting on the past few weeks, he concluded: “My job didn’t end, but it also did not turn out as good as I thought [that] it would. No!”


[1] The demographics of Thuisbezorgd, another food delivery platform, appear different. Another important difference is that Thuisbezorgd employs its riders and pays them an hourly wage, whereas Uber Eats and Deliveroo work with freelancers who are paid per order.
[2] The rider in question admitted he had not seen food delivery work listed as such, but he reasoned that “in my mind, I feel that people need to eat and if they order food, then this is essential”.
[3] Formally: ‘orientation year highly educated persons’.
Title Image Credit: Roy Huijsmans.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


Color 2 Roy HuijsmansAbout the author:

Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS, and a Deliveroo rider.