‘An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man.’ Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
‘Through alienated labour, therefore, man not only produces his relation to the object, and to the process of production, as alien and hostile men; he also produces the relation of other men to his production and his product, and the relation between himself and other men.’ Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
For the casual worker, the alienated relationships to the product, the company and the permanent workforce carries over into their relationships with other casuals. We see people as full-time workers, part-time workers, agency workers and casuals. The full and part-time workers have no relationship with us. They are in a different skill bracket, wage band and are permanent employees. What is the relationship between the casual worker and the line-managers and those above? As far as the latter is concerned, absolutely none. With the line managers it can be slightly better. The line managers position is based on casual workers turning up and getting the parcels shifted as quickly as possible. Beyond that, they don’t even know our names: no one asks us and we ask no one theirs.
As with many jobs there is no actual product. We produce nothing. We merely reproduce our actions and are one part of a longer process that moves parcels from one place to another. These simple tasks mean that we are alienated from the overall process, the product and the consumer. It is noticeable that various tasks have gradually been assigned to certain casual workers: the youngest and strongest have taken on the heavy work; the older ones have been given less demanding tasks (and there is one guy who looks like Hugh McDiarmid with crazy hair); the less competent have more sedentary ones; and there is quite clearly a gender divide with the men doing the tipping and the women doing the sorting. Casual workers are aware of their lowly status and gauge it in relation to other casual workers and so a further alienation grows between the young and the old, the men and the women, the less able and the agile, the slackers and the over-zealous. Although each task is part of a process, each task becomes a separated activity, devoid of any relationship with the task before or after and devoid of any collective relationship between the workforce.
The alienated relationship that the production line casual worker has with the commodity is reproduced and carries over into their relationships with each other. At times the depot is extremely busy and in these periods people have a very clear idea of what to do and how long it will take to do it. However, these periods are unpredictable and a certain amount of time is spent standing around. Underemployment becomes a problem with the over-eager encroaching on the work of others and leaving fellow casual workers with little to do, which is demarcation. During busy times, if the casual worker is on the conveyor belt where the parcels are sorted and thrown into separate dumpsters, and the first casual deals with the majority then this leaves two other workers with little to do but feel useless. Casual workers begin to see these scraps of jobs as ‘theirs’ and others who are there to help them become a burdensome benefit. We cling to these reptitious tasks as it gives us purpose but also end up competing and further alienating ourselves from each other.
It is one thing to be estranged from the full-time worker but quite another to be estranged from someone in exactly the same position as you and there can be further hostility generated by differing approaches to the job: some casual workers are intent on being seen ‘doing a good job’ whilst others are less motivated and are there through lack of alternatives. Management say that ‘safety is our priority’ and that the work is done for the good of the company in which casual workers have no real relationship. If there is a chance of casual workers becoming full-time employees then workers become alienated from each other as they are now in direct competition.
How has work changed since Marx and Engels’ day and how has alienation continued? IT has drastically changed working practices but this is not a totality. We may be tele-working through Skype, conference calls or internet discussion forums, de-physicalised abstracted voices on mobiles, emails and text messages yet alienated relationships can be reproduced in a new context (i.e., in technology) and remain essentially the same. Of course, there are still workers on building sites, driving trains, health care workers, council and manual workers but Marxists have stated that these are equally alienated workers and are there to reproduce the conditions for labour power to be maintained.
The alienation between casual workers to that which they produce, the consumer or the permanent workforce and management has not changed either. The relationship between owner, management and workers remain the same: we still sell our labour power to the boss class and take orders from the management. For the casual worker, there is only our shared adversity and low wages, united if only through our collective alienation.