For what we will

Mon Dec 14 2020 10:53:39 GMT+1100 (Australian Eastern Daylight Time)

A couple of months ago there was a ridiculous article on the ABC ostensibly about a four-day working week. It turns out that by "four day week" they mean "four ten hour days a week as long as the boss gets to decide what you're allowed to do on the other day". I work a real four-day week and it's certainly not that.

"The last time we actually made a serious change to the working week was done by Henry Ford" claims the boss. Um no. He didn't even do that for Americans. Ford's offer in 1914 of an eight hour day only stood for "worthy" workers of the Ford Motor Company. This was a full fifty eight years after Melbourne's stonemasons had already successfully won an eight hour day for the same wages as the former ten hour working day. They did it by going on strike until their demands were met. In 1903 (eleven years before "Henry Ford gave us the eight hour day") Socialist Tom Mann unveiled the Eight Hours Monument near Victoria's Parliament House, celebrating the events of 1856 and the status quo fact of an eight hour working day for most workers in Victoria.

Liam Hogan has already succinctly noted the core problem of "romance day", but it bears repeating. Bosses aren't doing you a favour when they "give" you some "time off". A job is labour time in exchange for money. Never mistake it for something else. There are certainly ways of organising human societies where you do have obligations to others when you're not working for them. Serfdom. Feudalism. Gift economies. Communalism. Mutual Aid. But we live under Capitalism. You don't owe your boss anything when you're not on the clock.

Essential work

Even with the "second wave" in Melbourne, Australia has been quite lucky with COVID-19 and avoided the sort of overwhelming chaos we see in Europe and the Americas. We're able to talk about "COVID recovery" already, and what it might look like. So far, it appears — perhaps unsurprisingly — our elites in politics and the media have learned nothing at all from the experience here or elsewhere. All talk is of "job creation" and that political staple, the "shovel ready project". Even Adam Bandt has gotten into the action, parroting the latest trends from the United States left and calling for a "Green New Deal" and "green jobs".

Earlier this year there was some speculation about genetic factors being behind the much higher COVID-19 death rate for Black and South Asian Britons. But more recently it's become apparent that Africa — which Western health experts expected to be decimated by COVID — has on the contrary largely contained the virus much more effectively than other continents. So clearly African genes are playing a marginal role here, if any. The more recent evidence from Britain suggest that, unsurprisingly, the problem is simply that those from minority ethnicities are more likely to live in crappy houses with bad air quality, or work in the most dangerous, often low paid jobs. The UK government's own report notes:

People who live in deprived areas have higher diagnosis rates and death rates than those living in less deprived areas. The mortality rates from COVID-19 in the most deprived areas were more than double the least deprived areas, for both males and females.
...High diagnosis rates may be due to geographic proximity to infections or a high proportion of workers in occupations that are more likely to be exposed.

The pattern of second-wave infections in Melbourne was likewise all too obvious: the suburbs with the most frequent and large case clusters were those housing the most tenuously employed in the lowest paid jobs. It's marginalisation, not genes, that makes people more likely to get COVID.

Staying at home and avoiding contact with potential infections is much easier when everyone is guaranteed to have a home, and doesn't have to worry about paying rent or a mortgage. Staying away from a crowded or dangerous workplace is easy for someone like me, in an office-based professional job. It's impossible for someone staring at eviction and hunger if they don't turn up, as is the case for abattoir and warehouse workers, or those without the right government paperwork.

Work sucks

And that's a problem, according to Martin Betts. The fact that I have some kind of job security, I mean. He thinks it would be much more "exciting" for us if all university staff were Uberised short-contract or sham contract workers, instead of the only 68% of us who already are. You will be shocked to learn Martin describes himself as a "strategic consultant" and "thought leader".

It's the reliance on cash income and a market economy for every facet of life that has caused so much trouble in this pandemic and of course well before it. What, exactly, is so great about a "job"? Work sucks. Capitalists only ever got people to work for wages by violently cutting off access to systems of community sustenance, whether in the British Isles, North America, El Salvador, Australia or elsewhere. It's not "jobs" or "work" that people need. It's sustenance, meaning, and connection. Or as authors in Uneven Earth noted:

The Coronavirus pandemic has clearly revealed the rather limited list of jobs and sectors that are essential for meeting society’s basic needs.

A "sector" that has recently gained a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons is what is euphemistically called the "Care industry". When "economic growth" is prized above all other things due to a fantasy that it "improves living standards", we should expect to see something exactly like this. Socialised to follow individual lives in a system structured to make the alternative difficult, saddled with huge debts or outrageous rents in order to live in poorly constructed housing, and working unpredictable or inflexible schedules, we warehouse the old, the unwell, and disabled. In exchange for the work of providing for their needs on our behalf, other desperate workers are paid ever so slightly above minimum wage, with no prospect of promotion or progression. David Speers recently proposed that the solution to this depressing state of affairs is to double down. Steering unemployed young people into caring careers might just pay off he suggests. The only people who have "careers" that "pay off" in the "Care sector" are the executives in Head Office and the corporate Board members. Everybody else just has a shit job — often literally.

A truly civilised society would see that care is essential, and Care is an abomination. That providing good housing for all is an obligation, and Real Estate is violence. That the health of the populace is largely determined by the health of the society they live in. It would work together rather than having jobs alone. It sure as hell wouldn't make you work ten hour days making shitty ads and call it romance.