In the early 1840s, Friedrich Engels’ wealthy father sent him to work in the offices of his holdings in Manchester, hoping to cure his son of radicalism. Instead, the 22-year-old spent his time documenting the brutal reality of working life in industrial Britain. Everything he saw convinced him of the need for dramatic change to create a better society.
In the preface to his book The condition of the working class in England, Engels railed against his contemporaries. German intellectuals, he wrote, “have far too little knowledge of the world as it actually exists … they have never been driven by ‘the cold facts of hard reality’ to demand reforms which would sweep away the social abuses of our time”.
In developed countries, we no longer live in the era of the workhouse, the child labourer and the cholera epidemic. Because the working class is not dropping dead of overwork en masse, according to some we have nothing to complain about. But a look at modern work, and conversations with the people who perform it, reveal that the alienating nature of work under capitalism hasn’t changed much since Engels’ time.
“The supervision of machinery, the joining of broken threads, is no activity which claims the operative’s thinking powers, yet it is of a sort which prevents him from occupying his mind with other things … [It is] tedium, the most deadening, wearing process conceivable. The operative is condemned to let his physical and mental powers decay in this utter monotony, it is his mission to be bored every day and all day long from his eighth year.”
Most people are aware of the dangers of occupational overuse injuries in repetitive work, but many aren’t familiar with how it can affect us psychologically. “You start to shut down”, says Josh (names of current workers changed) of his factory job bending metal for a small Melbourne engineering firm. “Your mind kind of stops working. I would finish a job and then I couldn’t remember whole chunks of it … All of a sudden there’s just a pile of steel sitting next to me.” While working, his workmates on the factory floor seemed “like zombies … they would look at you, but not really look at you. You just get sort of spaced.”
Mark worked as a voice picker for a major warehousing company in Melbourne’s north-west. Voice pickers wear headsets with microphones attached, and take instructions from a computer-generated voice. For eight hours, or longer if working overtime, the voice picker follows directions through their headset, driving a piece of machinery to the specified locations and picking stock.
Mark describes this work as “mind-numbing”. One of the more frustrating aspects of the job: “You can’t sing, because it would trigger the voice activation.” There was music playing over the PA, but accidentally singing along would cause the computer to respond, trying to verify the worker’s “input”.
Mark describes workmates on bad days pulling off their headsets in frustration and swearing at the computer as if it was a person.
Asked how he coped with the boredom, Mark says, “Most of the time you just deal with it. You develop mental coping skills or disengage, but you still have those moments throughout the day where you’re completely flipping out – How did I end up here? Am I going to be here forever?”
“[The factory worker] must not take a moment’s rest; the engine moves unceasingly; the wheels, the straps, the spindles hum and rattle in his ears without a pause, and if he tries to snatch one instant, there is the overlooker at his back with the book of fines …”
Every moment of Mark’s time was monitored in some way. The workers’ movements were tracked through the computerised system, so that management could compute their pick rate. A basic human interaction like stopping to chat in the aisle would bring a supervisor to ask what they were talking about. A low pick rate prompted invasive questioning. “They’d call someone up and there’d be two of them, big guys standing there going ‘Oh, so what’s going on today? Anything wrong? Something going on at home?’ It’s intimidation.”
Workers at Mark’s warehouse were consistently picking heavy items from low heights, and the repeated strain caused injuries. “We had about 20 percent of the workforce on modified duties because they’d injured themselves.” Weekends were a welcome rest, but Mark hated the fact that he was so exhausted that he couldn’t use the time. “I’d wake up and my lower back would feel like warm jelly”, he says. “I used to take a bit of codeine, just to feel normal.
“As voluntary, productive activity is the highest enjoyment known to us, so is compulsory toil the most cruel, degrading punishment. Nothing is more terrible than being constrained to do some one thing every day from morning until night against one’s will … It is still the same thing since the introduction of steam. The worker’s activity is made easy, muscular effort is saved, but the work itself becomes unmeaning and monotonous to the last degree. It offers no field for mental activity, and claims just enough of his attention to keep him from thinking of anything else …”
Amelia is a 29-year-old student who earns money working supermarket night fill. Asked whether she can escape into her thoughts from the monotonous work, Amelia says it’s possible in some stores, but not the one she currently works at. “I feel even though we don’t talk much that I can’t really stop thinking about what I’m doing. I don’t want to break anything, I don’t want to drop anything, so I concentrate more; I try to stay in the zone. There’s not as much of my own thinking time.”
Headphones are banned in Amelia’s current store, so all she has to listen to is the store music. “They play the same ads that you hear in the store during the daytime”, she says. “Over and over again.”
The pressure to work faster is “constant”. Although her current employer never bothered to instruct her on safe lifting techniques, Amelia is familiar with them. However, there isn’t time to lift safely. “Because we’re pressed for time”, she says, “we’re often picking up, twisting and dropping, not actually lowering”.
Capitalist ideology promotes the illusion of freedom. Workers are “free” to come and go from paid work as we choose, only in the sense that we are also “free” to have our electricity cut off, our families made destitute and to be evicted from our homes.
In reality we are not free, especially not at work. “Here ends all freedom in law and in fact”, writes Engels of the factory system in industrial Britain. “[The operative] must eat, drink, and sleep at command. For satisfying the most imperative needs, he is vouchsafed the least possible time absolutely required by them.”
In the 21st century, workers in the developed world are still subject to such humiliations on the job. A UK labour research organisation found in 2010 that many British workers don’t have free access to toilet facilities at work. “One call centre gave workers in teams a wooden spoon. To go to the toilet, a worker had to take the spoon. If someone else already had the spoon in their team, no one else was allowed to go.”
This year Lily Prince, a 51-year-old Minnesota woman, was forced to urinate in a cardboard box after her supervisor refused to let her leave her position on the assembly line to use the toilet.
Since workers are seen as mere extensions of productive technology, our bodies’ needs and vulnerabilities are inconveniences, to be either avoided or ignored. Injuries or even deaths are just glitches in the production line. In 2010, Sarel Singh was decapitated by a piece of machinery at the Baiada chicken processing plant in Melbourne’s west.
What happened after the death? “They just stopped the line for two hours”, said his workmate Prabhu. “After that they continued production, that’s not good for a human being. Give respect for the human being.”
Respect for the human being. It’s a pretty basic concept – one on which capitalist labour processes completely fail to deliver.