The Indignity Of Work

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Let’s talk about work.

Responding to the recent increase in Australia’s unemployment rate (from 5.4 to 5.6 per cent, still low on a global scale), several groups cautioned that to look merely at this figure is to miss the broader picture.

Noting that Australia has the fourth highest proportion of part-time workers in the developed world, ACTU president Ged Kearney argued that many who do not feature in the unemployment statistics are still struggling to make ends meet. The ABC also reported Beyond Blue chief executive Kate Carnell expressing concerns about risks of depression and serious illness posed by “job insecurity, over-work and under-work”.

“The evidence is clear: Australians work long hours," The University of Sydney’s Workplace Research Centre reported in February. "Full-time employees work an average of 44 hours per week, well above the traditional standard 38-hour week…we have some of the longest working hours among developed countries.”

With increasing casualisation on the one hand, and lengthening working days on the other, Australians may often feel trapped within or shut out from employment, yet our political culture fails to reflect this reality. Work-as-salvation looms large in our public conversations.

We have a Prime Minister who famously praises those who “set their alarm clocks” to get up early, and an Opposition Leader forever dogged by the allegedly “dead, buried, cremated” Work Choices policy.

Consider Julia Gillard's statements that the ALP is “the party of work, not welfare” and of “responsibility, not idleness” and, more recently, that Labor is “politically, organisationally, spiritually and even literally, the party of work”.

This latter sentence feels strangely jarring. A “party of work” seems conceptually distinct from a party of workers; people who have interests that go beyond earning daily bread, meeting key performance indicators and keeping the wheels and cogs of the economy turning, and who may often be oppressed by their workplaces.

In opposing and then overturning the Howard government’s Work Choices legislation, the ALP underlined this distinction, reaffirming that labour is not merely a commodity to be bought and sold. The party’s attitude to social welfare remains ambivalent though, as demonstrated in the government's much-criticised movement of many single parents to the Newstart allowance on 1 January 2013.

In Gillard’s speech to the Sydney Institute in 2011, she described welfare recipients thus: “The old way saw a victim, the old way offered an excuse. Some today see a problem, they offer blame. I see a person, a person who can work”. 

The vision of “a person who can work” arrived at in this quest for the middle ground lacks not only poetry, but also a sense of people’s inherent worth regardless of capacity to participate in the labour market. We are here a long way from Justice Higgins’ 1907 Harvester judgment which referred to “the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilised community”.

The ALP has arguably always been far more than “the party of work”, and this government’s policies, such as the national broadband network, disability insurance, a price on carbon and a profits-based tax on mining, extend beyond a spiritual commitment to the Protestant work ethic. Indeed, Andrew Leigh has persuasively articulated an alternative vision of the ALP as the true inheritor of Deakinite liberalism.   

Nevertheless, the ALP’s conceptualisation of work contains lurking dangers. Rhetoric that glorifies work for its own sake risks stigmatising those absent from the ranks of the paid workforce, thus devaluing what writer Anne Manne terms "the shadow economy of care" as well as people with disabilities that prevent them from working. Economist Nancy Folbre, who has written extensively on the role of the family, notes that the “process of caring is also a process of production”, but that “child rearing fits uncomfortably within our economic system”.

Further, as I've argued previously, the language quoted above often glosses over the inequalities of work – the obvious fact that not all work is accorded equal status, security and pay.

If all work conveys dignity and is beneficial, and if to receive welfare is to be "idle", then why agitate for better pay and conditions, on either a national or a global basis? Why not, instead, be grateful for the chance of a meaningful, dignified existence?   

These are the kinds of ideas one would normally associate with the free-market right rather than the social democrat left, and it is instructive to look at the similarities between Gillard’s language and that of Liberal politicians. Witness a recent op-ed by Kevin Andrews in which the shadow minister for families, housing and human services rhapsodised:

"Work is a social good that is a foundation of human dignity … Not only does work enable us to express ourselves as human beings, and fulfil our material needs, it enables us to contribute to society as a whole: to our families, our communities and the nation."

There is nothing inherently wrong with these platitudes on their face, but they merit unpicking. If work is a foundation of human dignity, are those who do not undertake paid work – such as parents raising children or people with disabilities who are unable to work or unable to find work – undignified and undeserving of respect? If work enables us to contribute to our society, is this more intrinsically valuable than other contributions, such as caring for elderly relatives? Does working double shifts as a casual really enable us to express ourselves as human beings?  

Any deviation from the dogma that work confers dignity is today almost heretical, but it is worth recalling that this tenet has long been questioned. In his rather utopian 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde wrote:

"A great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure."

These sentiments are profoundly at odds, not only with the rhetoric of both government and opposition, but with a broader theme in our political culture – the elevation of employment as a panacea for all ills, together with a reluctance to question the way in which work functions in our economy.

Within this framework, particular ideas flourish. Witness for instance the liberal feminist conviction that women must Lean In and slot themselves into existing workplace practices rather than challenging the broader political economy that produces them. Consider also mainstream commentary on ‘Indigenous affairs’, which often presumes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must choose between jobs and economic development on the one hand and the preservation of culture or the environment on the other.

What is presented as empowerment can also be seen as coercion; what Manne calls the “Get to Work neo-liberal program”.

This is not to say that work is inherently unfulfilling or to propose that we become a nation of bludgers rather than of industrious worker bees. However, it is important to query the assumption that, in Margaret Thatcher's words, "there is no alternative".

New Matilda

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