Notes From The Shopfloor 1: Alienation

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‘The work is external to the worker … it is not a part of his nature, [so ]that consequently he does not fulfil himself in his work but denies himself.’ Karl Marx. Economic & Political Manuscripts.

We have secured a temporary job as a Christmas casual at the Cosmodemonic Parcel Company and the job is throwing parcels into a dumpster. That’s it. It is the very definition of alienated labour but there are several ways in which the casual worker is alienated: from the product; from the company; from the usual benefits granted long term workers; from any political struggle in the workplace; from the long term workers themselves; and frequently from each other when factory conditions and social parameters mean that communication is minimal or restricted.

‘The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, takes on its own existence, but that it exists outside of him, independently, and alien to him.’ Karl Marx. Economic & Political Manuscripts.

Casual workers are alienated from any product that they may help reproduce: the product requires few skills and none of the special skills the worker may have; the work does not engage them in any meaningful way; and if they are on a production line or part of a processing plant they only know 1 part of the process so have little relation to the finished commodity and, ultimately, the consumer of their labour. The casual worker is a replaceable entity who requires or gets little training. They merely need to turn up. It is hard physical work so it’s no wonder people get tired or bored so quickly and leave, preferring to take their chances with the bureaucracy of the DSS than the tedium of the workplace. In Capital, Marx wrote ‘that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the utmost, it does away with the many sided play of muscles and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity.’ But then again what would he know? The old hippy didn’t do a stroke in his life.

The casual worker is alienated from the workplace because their stay may only be brief. They have no stake in the workplace and by extension the success of a company which is unlikely to take them on full time. If the worker has got the job from an agency, who extract their own pound of flesh, and has been there a while they will be on short-term contracts which give little security and therefore little personal investment or financial incentive to stick at it very long. This lack of certainty with a company that hardly knows they exist puts the casual worker in a fragile position. The short-term nature of much casual employment means being alienated from the  benefits that come with full time work: an inability to make long term financial plans, few means to secure a pension or start a family, get a mortgage or even organise a holiday without pay.

The casual worker is alienated from any struggle between the union of the regular workers and the employer as they ‘belong’ to neither.  If the casual worker is a member of another union they may face a choice of either crossing a picket-line , which will alienate them from other unionised workers, or lose a day’s pay they can ill afford.  The alienated relationship is further extended between casual labour and full time or long term part time workers: the latter feel they have a stake in the company, could have been gradually promoted over time or see it as a convenient job they like near home. The casual worker has no chance of promotion, often travels further to get there, is paid less, and feels they have little in common with the permanent workforce.

It is interesting that conversations between casual workers at the depot have been  bewildering ones about working practices or include the question ‘what do you usually do?’ The ‘real job’ uses the workers skills and experience, they have a personal impact on the work and it may be something they have invested time and energy significantly and satisfactorily into. What we want to do, what we are good at, or what we usually do, may not be so easily accessible on the contemporary job market hence casual work.

In the depot there are Sikh men, Asian women, Lithuanians, Africans and locals: it is potentially a real mix of people with interesting stories of previous jobs or amusing cultural differences (Mal ‘so what do you like best about Scottish food?’ Asian lass: ‘nothing’). But there are two noticeable factors that tend to inhibit further socialisation. In the break the Sikh guys sit with Sikh guys; the Asian women sit over tubs of food and chatter; the African guys sit with kith and kin; and the white guys sit and talk shite about football as if it’s important or something. There are obvious social and cultural explanations for this separation but there is also a geographical one: as the depot is in a ‘retail park’ there are no local pubs where workers can meet after work to relax or mingle with co-workers, both casual and permanent (and after-work pub socialising is dependent on what shift you work). There is also an environmental difficulty in communicating: the noise of the machinery is so constant that it is hard to follow what anyone else is saying, especially if they have a heavy Mauritian accent and you have an Auchenshooglian one. Age and psychological, social and physical difficulties act as a further separation: the younger workers do not sit with the older ones; women do not sit with the men; and it becomes obvious quite quickly which workers have difficulty socialising in general.

Full time and long term part-time workers can also be identified physically: they may have uniforms but their confidence, body language, visible friendships and knowledge and experience of the workplace sets them physically apart from the short term casual workers who are often seen stood around in high-viz bibs awaiting instructions. Work methods may also differ: casual workers are told they are working too slowly, too quickly or too shabbily and are often initially unaware of the prevalent attitude on the shopfloor.

But it is not just casual workers who are alienated. In the call centre next door, the worker is equally alienated from the customer even through the relative intimacy of the telephone. The caller/worker is at best an irritant, at worst verbally abused. The person being called is merely another number charged with the small possibility of a sale and maybe a bonus and so is alienated labour as much as the parcel chuckers. The other folk on the shopfloor of the Cosmodemonic Parcel Company may look more comfortable and productive than us casual workers but they have their own worries as we do.

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About malatesta32

Malatesta, undercover anti-fascist blogger, has analyzed the changing fortunes of the British far right since 2009. He has written for the anarchist magazine Freedom and the book, Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years Of Resistance (AK Press 2015). http://www.akuk.com/index.php?_a=product&product_id=7285
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