‘A man who has no free time to dispose of, whose whole lifetime, apart from the mere physical interruptions by sleep, meals and so forth, is absorbed by his labour for the capitalist, is less than beast of burden.’ Marx from Wages, Price & Profit.
So how does the casual worker experience time at work? Perhaps we can look to philosophy to help us. Henri Bergson wrote about the experience of time and referred to the idea of duration. Bergson was interested in how time is experienced (which John Berger calls ‘depth’) rather than how it was measured on a clock (which Berger calls ‘length’). Most of us realise that the more we are enjoying ourselves, the quicker time goes by, but when bored, time goes by much slower.
Consider the experience of time during sex compared to the same amount of time spent waiting at the bus stop (or indeed, having sex at the bus stop). Time is experienced more slowly when there is nothing to distract us: we have to pay attention in case the bus goes by, or we may be cold and agitated by the lateness of the bus, so there is nothing to do but stand there. This lack of events or distraction makes the wait at the bus stop seem longer as we are constantly aware of time passing uninterestingly or slowly (and are aware that the bus should be running on time but isn’t). The same amount of minutes can be endured differently and pleasurably because of the events that occur within it. We can say then that the duration of any given time period is relative to the complexity of activities carried out during it.
Berger summed up the Bergsonian idea of duration thus:
‘The deeper the experience of the moment, the greater accumulation of experience. This is why the moment is lived as longer… The lived durée is not a question of length but of depth and intensity.’ John Berger in Keeping A Rendezvous.
This is something casual workers can identify with: they perform simple, repetitious tasks and begin to operate automatically, without thinking. Then, because there is no need of protracted concentration we grow distracted and begin to dwell on how unstimulating the job is and how slowly time appears to be passing (made worse by clock watching). So, the casual worker’s reflection on how boring the job is intensifies the negative experience of the job and makes it even more boring. Not only are we bored, we are aware of how bored we are and how time is passing unsatisfactorily. The one small compensation for the casual worker of the short term contract is that, although the job may be tedious, at least it is only for a short amount of time and the next job may either be better or the one we actually want.
The casual worker speaks with other casuals to pass the time, because although alienated we still operate in the same space and have spatial relationships with the depot and other workers. Although the management is not keen on folk standing around talking when they could be tipping. With casual work temporary alliances can be formed but these are often based on a mutual disinterest or feeling of resentment (and the one thing that unites all workers is moaning about the job). When the job is over, many casual workers find they lose contact with each other quickly and what may have been an interesting friendship is dissolved. This is not to say that friends cannot be made at work: of course they can but there is a distinct type of friend made at work because of the job, that folk are there on sufferance and share a mutual antipathy, and friends that are made despite the job. The only reason most people work is to make money and as with any other situation where people are there for a single purpose – jail, armed forces, hospital – these alliances, however temporary help pass time as painlessly as possible.