I THOUGHT the pandemic would change conversations around work especially because it laid bare what essential work was and who was expected to do it. Yet essential workers remained the lowest paid even when they were most needed — and that hasn’t changed.
Before lockdowns, many thought work done at home was not work — ie housework — but the virus changed all that and suddenly a strict boss was very flexible about WFH (it became an acronym so fast) because work had to get done. In Pakistan, much of the policymaking has been around keeping the economy running, and you could tell who was making the decisions because, for example, the construction industry was allowed to operate but salons were not — as if you could only catch Covid by getting a manicure.
Many Pakistanis have accepted how the state doesn’t have funds to feed people but don’t ask why the same state always has money for security issues. Does that not tell us all we need to know about what it deems more important?
How can we create a new relationship with work?
I thought of this while reading Sarah Jaffe’s very timely book Work Won’t Love You Back. It is a searing indictment on capitalist societies which are responsible for this gross inequality. While you cannot ignore the link between labour and capital, she writes: “Labour, after all, is us. Messy, desiring, hungry, lonely, angry, frustrated human beings.”
What should work do for us, then? How can we create a new relationship with work wherein a person’s worth or value is not deemed by how burnt out they are? Should we let go of the idea that work is meant to provide a sense of purpose, fulfilment and if not, you should work harder, or better or ‘lean in’ until you’re happy? Shouldn’t we pause to, as Jaffe writes, “ask questions about the way our work is making other people rich while we struggle to pay our rent and see our friends”?
Jaffe’s book profiles workers in the US — artists, interns, domestic workers, video game designers, people in retail and academics — who tell her of their work conditions but also offer hope by sharing their stories of organising. “Turning our love away from other people and onto the workplace serves to undermine solidarity,” writes Jaffe.
Things can change if you unite and demand better pay, better severance packages, tougher laws that disallow companies from just bailing on their workers. There were glimpses of this during the Occupy Wall Street protests and even if it fizzled out, the movement demonstrated the power of solidarity.
I believe it is this lack of solidarity which results in unpaid internships, contractual work, pretending you’re your own boss in the gig economy but still tied to the company, staying in poor conditions to keep the family afloat.
“Our place in the hierarchy of capitalist society is decided not by how hard we work but by any number of elements out of our control,” writes Jaffe, referring to gender, race, identity. People can’t all just get up and leave a bad job because job pays bills.
But she reminds us that the narrative of work has changed and can change again if people work collectively. Work wasn’t invented because humans were bored and needed fulfilment, she says but because some people needed money and some people were forced into wage labour. By using emotive phrases like ‘work is family’ we’re equating work with love. Your family will not lay you off.
Jaffe argues that it’s time to take back this emotional investment from work — which is essentially investment in someone else’s capital accumulation — and put it back in people. That will require a shift in how society values humans. For starters, they’re not robots and shouldn’t be disposed of in favour of robots either.
She asks a great question in her last chapter which I urge you to answer for yourself: what would you do if you didn’t have to work? Perhaps you would connect/reconnect with people you love, build community, strengthen that community, fight for betterment, fight for others — the very things that have so far divided people or kept them trapped in a consumer-driven bubble where you spend your earnings on things.
What would make work better? I believe we need a collective response and one without any exploitative aspect to work or productivity. I often hear people wanting to return to normal but let’s remember that normal was deeply unfair. Perhaps conversations around work should challenge the power structure wherein only one person decides working conditions and fair wages; where a person can say no thank you without fear their life will fall apart because there’s a safety net — and that net is people like us, who stand up for others to remind them they are loved, and not alone.
The writer teaches journalism at IBA.
Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2021