By Estelle Birdy
Many years ago, in the dark distant past, I worked for an organisation. The organisation (a business organisation, rather than a shadowy spy organisation) shall remain nameless. However, it was the type of organisation that might have been more than a little involved in economic and political ‘shock therapy’ in South America. Of course, I didn’t know this until much, much later but I hated this organisation and its management style, so maybe the Universe was telling me something all along.
Anyway, all of that is by-the-by. All of us, the founding team of this organisation in Ireland, were young (ish), no more than mid- twenties. We were mostly graduates with some work experience behind us. There were some really great people working there. One day, we were all having a chat, on a break, when someone said something like, “I would never dream of leaving work on time”. I thought this must be a joke, naturally enough. But no! The initial statement was followed by a raft of statements from others like “Oh no! I would never either! That would be awful! I have never in my life left work on time” As no one had actually had a very long life at this stage, it probably wasn’t that big a statement. Nevertheless, I thought I’d been dropped into a parallel universe, where people thought handing over your labour for free was the done thing.
So across-the-board was this declaration of intent, that I didn’t feel in a position to disagree with and say something like, “What in the name of God are you all talking about? Are you all taking hard drugs?”. So, I just stayed silent. In fairness to this particular organisation, during the start- up phase, there was a lot of extra time required and they paid proper overtime rates. If they hadn’t been paying, I wouldn’t have been working. It seemed, however, according to what they were saying, that most of my colleagues would have done, and would have been only delighted to do so.
In the intervening years, I worked in several areas (flexible and resilient see?) most notably in recruitment. I had a lot of success in recruitment, which I attribute to liking and getting to know people pretty well. When I was in recruitment, the first time around, I made my way into fairly senior roles. So a lot of the time, I would have been meeting with senior management type people. When I was interviewing these kinds of people, ostensibly highly successful career people (if measured by the standards of patriarchal capitalism), they would fall over themselves to tell me how they wouldn’t think twice about working through the night, working seven days a week, never taking a lunch break, whatever it took, “to get the job done”. Now, if we were talking about Firefighters or Cardiac Surgeons, working in occasional life-or-death emergency situations, I’d have said “Fair play, well done lads”. Sadly though, we aren’t talking about those kinds of workers. We’re talking about, Accountants and mostly, although not exclusively, men. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but no one has actually ever died for want of a Balance Sheet? Much as I admire the work accounts people do, because I can’t do it at all myself, I don’t think any of us genuinely think that a spreadsheet should ever keep you up all night, right? In the case of these be-suited maniacs, with titles like Manager and Director, they wouldn’t even be getting paid for any of these extra hours. They had been led to believe, by some unknown entity, that offering their labour was not the same as someone offering their labour, on a building site, or in a restaurant, not dressed in a suit. Not alone that, they felt it would be shameful to even utter the words that they wanted to be paid for any and all work that they did. There’s a reason some workers always want to know what the hourly rate of pay is. That reason is, that that is the intelligent way to look at things!
Of course, times change and I left recruitment the first time, in 2006. When I returned, I found that there was a new phenomenon; these same types of ‘successful’ men were now often saying to me that they wanted jobs where they did not have to work all hours that the universe sends; where they could have a family-life, maybe work from home, part-time, play sports, see their friends. Some of them, had already left their jobs and taken time out. The very fact that these people exist, I’ve met them, is heartening but also a tragic indictment of the system that we are all forced to endure. People are, quite literally, breaking down. They are being broken by the system. If I posted an ad for a Part-Time job of any kind, I would immediately be inundated with hundreds of applications. People desperate to get a break from the pressure. With no scientific backup whatsoever for this claim, I put this phenomenon of people wanting, en masse, to turn their backs on this inhumane system, down to 3 things; women kicking down doors for the rest of us, Millenials not giving a fiddler’s fart for employers wishing to strap them to their desks, and IT people knowing stuff the rest of us don’t and consequently, getting to do whatever the feck they like.
Back in the day, I’d meet women who had, quite literally, clawed their way to some semblance of seniority in organisations, by playing the patriarchal game. They too said things like, “I’ll work all hours” because they had to say these things, to get recognised for their work at all. Once they got to the top though, some of them realised that they’d been cheated by the system. An appalling vista now lay before them. However, through their sheer visibility, they made it possible for many other women to enter the work force and we are now, making a difference. You know all that lip-service that the Men- in- Suits pay to the importance of Emotional Intelligence? We women are just doing that on the daily lads. It’s called having some cop-on and actually caring about people and the world. Millennials, they’re another group the Men-in-Suits pay lip service to. They’re awfully important you know? They need autonomy. So, the Men-in-Suits offer them slides at work, a beer fridge and round the clock Quinoa-based meals. Meanwhile, Millennials are changing the face of work and they’ll only buy your bullshit for a short while, before they set up on their own in bean-bag filled, shared work space. IT people, I don’t know what it is you are actually doing; numbers and stuff? Just keep on doing it, in your combat shorts and flip flops, from your bed… whatever. Thanks to these 3 groups, in my opinion, I now had men coming to me saying they wanted out of their jobs where they had to work round the clock. They had seen that there was another way, and they wanted a piece of the action. Feminism and having some cop on, raises all boats equally, I find.
Having said all that, the old ideas about work have not gone away. For every one organisation with some interest in us all living in a functioning society of care, there are twenty that still seem to think that it’s a badge of honour for an employee to work 60 hours a week, for no extra pay. For every person who tells me they want to work for a smaller portion of their waking hours in order to have a fulfilling life, there are many others who tell me “I’m a Manager so, of course I don’t get paid for working those hours! I’m on a Management Salary!” Really? You’re on a Management salary, are you? Does that make you no longer a worker? Are you telling me, my friend, that you would be away from your family and/or friends and your house, with the mortgage that’s breaking your back, even if you weren’t getting paid at all? Or are you a worker, just like any other worker and if so, why are you allowing yourself to go along with this abuse of yourself? This wage theft? It’s as if these people have been programmed to think that it is somehow shameful to expect to work and get paid for it.
And listen up women, Millenials and IT workers! Freezing your eggs so you can have someone painfully re-insert them into your hormone destroyed body, once you’ve worked until you’re dead inside, is not a ‘Company Benefit’! Getting all of your meals at work, doing your yoga classes at work and being given a slide and a giant ball to sit on, while wearing a kaftan, doesn’t change the fact that you spend nearly all your waking hours at work!
It seems that there is an idea abroad that if you wear a suit or something similar and are perhaps desk based, that you should no longer think of yourself as a worker. Certainly, if your employer gives you a title like Manager or Director, you must cease, immediately, thinking of yourself as a worker. In this way, you can be divided from all others who are workers. People like bus drivers, retail workers or nurses. You don’t need a union, because you aren’t a worker. Never mind that you get up at the crack of dawn and leave your home and family, perhaps to do something you love, perhaps to do something you don’t care about. Either way, you’re different. You may very well be earning considerably more than a bus driver (or you may not) but I think you should think carefully about what your role is. We can assume that you are, like most of us, a fair- minded person who expects to work for the money given by the employer. Your labour is, after all, all that you have to give. You exchange your labour, whether you get a great buzz out of that labour or not, for something. Money, usually. For every hour you work, you are exchanging your labour for some kind of monetary compensation, or at least you should be. If you’re earning €80K per annum, no one’s going to argue that that isn’t good money. If you work a 40 hour week, you’re earning €38 Gross per hour of your labour. That goes down to €25 Gross per hour if you’re doing that 60 hour week you’re so proud of. Still nice money but not that nice anymore, is it?
Every time you don’t take your lunch break and stay at your desk, your wages are being stolen from you, whether if you are working in a suit, a cool T-shirt or a boiler suit. Every time you cross a workers’ picket line, you weaken your own position as worker, even if you’re wearing a suit. Every time you start work early and stay late, you’re handing your labour over for free and getting abused, just like any other worker, even though you’re in suit. If you’re so generous with your labour and happy to give it away for free, why not next time, give your three hours per day for free to the fella setting up his tent along the canal? Or the Women’s Aid Shelter? Voluntary work is voluntary work; your big multinational employer does not need or deserve your free labour.
The upshot is, if you work for money, you are a worker. Whether your work involves you wearing a suit, smart casual (which apparently means Chinos, i.e. worse than a suit) a swimsuit, or not a damn thing. Don’t work for free, don’t separate yourself from other workers and don’t fool yourself that you’ll get that you’re being ‘looked after’ by your employer when they freeze your eggs for you or get you that ball pit to play in. Work should always be a fair exchange and no work should ever keep you away from the people you love and care about without proper compensation. Stop acting the goat.