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The SLANTY® brand of toilet comes with a seat angled between eight and thirteen degrees. At a slant of 13 degrees, it becomes visibly uncomfortable to sit on the toilet for more than five to seven minutes. Companies love the SLANTY®’s brand because an increased discomfiture means lesser time spent in the toilet, which in turn means enhanced productivity. Employers claim that an ‘average employee spends around 25% greater time in lavatories than necessary’. Hence the embracing of this particular brand to weed out inefficiency.
Writer & researcher, Amelia Horgan in a biting polemic castigates capitalism for reducing work to an almost accepted idea of déclassé. Horgan’s narrative is adorned by the aperçus of anger. Every phrase, passage and punctuation leaps out in unabashed and spit balling rage as it eviscerates the mavens of capitalism for viewing work as the handmaiden of consumerism. Juxtaposing lacerating wit with felt lament, Horgan traces the sustained deterioration of work and worker alike, from the “Fordism” of old to modern day “Toyotism.”
Spurred by the time and motions studies of Fredrick Winslow Taylor, “Fordism”, represented a metonym for the monotonous and drab mass factory work that had as its apex, the production line. Fordism involved an almost Faustian bargain. Subsistence wages in exchange for a fixed number of hours characterised by uncompromising attention and unwavering dedication. The modern times has seen a seamless substitution of Toyotism for Fordism. This new age phenomenon whose lexicon is seeped in corporate speak such as ‘Agile’, ‘Lean’, ‘Just-In-Time’ and ‘Kaizen’ is an absolute race to the elusive top where every unsuspecting employee is gripped by the mania or cult of self-improvement. A constant and unrelenting bedlam to improve oneself at work for the furtherance of a clutch of neo-liberalists makes Fordism seem a purveyor of unalloyed virtue! An employee and a rail union representative in the UK discloses to Horgan that in the inadvertent circumstance of a train running late, the solution is for the rail network to cancel stops at smaller stations (leaving a clutch of passengers stranded), so that centrally imposed fines may be avoided. So much for Just-In-Time!
As Horgan disquietingly reveals, ‘12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions.’ While unpaid overtime enriched – some would say unjustly – employers to the tune of £32.7 billion for employers in 2019, in the UK, this is a phenomenon that is uniform across the globe. Professional time seeps into personal time as a continuous tethering to work via ubiquitous technological tools such as WhatsApp and email not just ensures but arrogantly ‘demands’ that employees be available at all times and all hours to stand at the ready – sentinels of the corporation. In the words of director of the think tank Autonomy, Will Stronge, ‘communications technology has dissolved the boundary between contracted and non-contracted hours.’
Horgan dissects the prevailing trend of ‘jobification’ of work and in the process tries to answer the question as to what is it that makes work an exercise in despondence? Zero-hour contracts, and gig employment bestow phenomenal flexibility to the employers, at the cost of the employee. The process of Hiring and firing becomes an extremely malleable activity far removed from emotion and empathy. Consder this. Warehouse workers employed with that beacon of capitalism, Amazon face a dehumanizing experience as every movement of theirs is recorded and every second spent at work monitored by pre-programmed algorithms. Too much time spent in the lavatory can mean getting the boot. There have been disturbing confessions of employees relieving themselves in bottles to save the trips to the loo.
Workers dismissed from their jobs face an even more deplorable future, for if the finely lubricated levers of capitalism are allergic to something, it is welfare payouts and benefits. In the acerbic and degrading words of UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, workers attempting to avoid the deadly COVID-19 workers were those ‘addicted to furlough’, Labour MP Rachel Reeves has gone on record insisting that her party was not the party of ‘people on benefits’.
The service sector industry spits out jobs at the rate of knots. However this also results in the dangerous compartmentalization of jobs as the good, bad, and the ugly. A burgeoning inequality in both income as well as wealth has spilt work between the people creating filth and the ones cleaning up after them. One of the most poignant and thought provoking passages in the book involves Horgan reminiscing about a childhood memory that involves a skirmish in a school playground, with two mothers as warring protagonists. One woman yells at another with undignified derision “You clean my toilets!” The woman at the receiving end of this stinging rebuke and who happens to work at the reception at the school, incidentally, also doubles up as the domestic help of her abuser.
The sad, yet undisputable fact that is common to a great proportion of the working class, is that people almost always, need a job more than a job needs people. This unfortunate fact puts the employee in a vice like grip of her employer. The relationship between employer and the employee therefore is totally asymmetric with the dynamics of power always steering towards the ‘boss’. For example, a majority of garment workers across the world are (most of whom are women) are paid paltry wages. In fact as Horgan writes ‘only 2% of garment workers are paid a liveable wage, calculated on local housing and food, education and childcare costs.’
Horgan does not end her book on an optimistic note. Striking a wary note, she acknowledges that there is no easy way out of this rut. The major solution lies in cohesion and conglomeration. A revival of the trade union culture, abolition of zero hour contracts, tight regulation of the gig economy and obliteration of bogus self-employment are some of the urgent and essential measures that would represent a tentative beginnings of hope and a realistic transition to worker freedom.