How appropriate that on the day the Chancellor celebrated the UK’s 0.6% economic growth figures with a hi-vis tour of factories and warehouses, I was reacquainted with one of the traditions of the low-paid insecure work lurking behind such statistics and within such workplaces: the enforced day off.
Where I work, all the temporary staff received a text message from the recruitment agency on Wednesday afternoon, informing us that the company “are not going to need you tomorrow but would like you back on Friday.” The message ended with the words: “Is that ok with you?” The façade of choice must be upheld and the corporate power routinely exerted over casualised labourers cannot be called what it is, namely exploitation on an industrial scale.
Our immediate supervisors made no comment on this remote announcement, or none that I could overhear, anyway. Maybe they weren’t aware of it, even as they monitored us, ensuring that we did not shirk our duties. The business does not seem to be faltering; on the contrary, it is a struggle to keep up with the expanding workload. Perhaps, just as we are expected to fit an increasing volume of products into a small space, the bosses are trying to squash more of our labour into less time, to maximise their return.
In the absence of any focus for our resentment we kept calm and carried on, as the posters say, completing the monotonous tasks required of us, as if no arbitrary chasm had suddenly opened up in our weekly incomes.
Luckily while I’ve been employed there I’ve accrued a couple of days’ paid leave, and the following morning I phoned the agency and arranged to take that day as one of them. As ever, the recruitment operative conveyed an impression of cheerful powerlessness about the whole thing. The agency’s motto could be: Don’t Shoot the Messenger [smiley face]. I had hoped to take some paid time off next month, but this was a sharp reminder of one of the first lessons the precarious worker must learn about life under the regime of flexible conformity. Thinking of accumulating your leave for a week’s holiday? Think again.
Including the disintegration of my previous job, of my 6 and a half days of paid leave so far this year, not counting bank holidays, 5 have been decided by my employers. And even this is a luxury compared to the self-employed, intermittently employed or unemployed who don’t get any paid leave at all. Just as the ‘job for life’ is now a historical cliché, no doubt soon all time off, whether paid or unpaid, will happen not when it suits you but when it suits your boss. The voice of business will sweep aside any alternative as laughably unrealistic. “We’re all 24/7 entrepreneurs now, that’s just how it is. I’m always on duty whether I’m by the pool or in the car or in the office. I’ve never taken a day off in my life so why should my employees dictate when they work? The country would grind to a halt! My God it would be practically communism! Next they won’t want to work at all!”
The great push for growth is a convenient excuse to make ever more pressing demands upon capitalism’s conscripts, who must be constantly available and looking for work, any work, and are expected to compete with colleagues to produce more and make do with less. This is the real outcome of an economy shaped by the discourse of crisis-as-normality and the charade of unity against a backdrop of skyscraping inequality: go wherever the agency or Jobcentre sends you, regardless of pay, conditions or matters of principle, do what you’re told and more, and look happy about it.
So I’ll obey these orders-framed-as-invitations and take my time off when it’s given to me. After all, the time might not be of my own choosing but it’s up to me what I choose to do with it. It’s a free country. I might decide to go shopping, if my wages stretch beyond or even as far as the basic essentials which enable me to reproduce my labour (there’s the credit card, of course, but debt is a matter of individual responsibility...). I might even fritter away my spare time writing inane accounts of my experiences of work – but if I choose to do this rather than using that time to search for the next job and fill in application forms, well... the only person I’m punishing is myself. Nevertheless, there’s no harm in pursuing this eccentric hobby if it makes me feel better. That is, as long as I don’t jeopardise my future employability by putting my name to negative, anti-work polemics (in which case I would only have myself to blame for my lack of prospects), and as long as I don’t publicly identify my workplace and thereby endanger my current position, even if aside from its brutal employment practices and quasi-Victorian working conditions its business model is also grotesquely unethical, and even if I have already asked the agency to move me somewhere else but apparently there is nowhere else.
A so-called recovery engineered on these terms will only further aid the rich at the expense of the rest of us, being driven by unspeakable greed and implemented through the treatment of people both in and out of work as so many disposable units of short-term labour. The expansion of my current workplace on the foundation of such institutionalised insecurity and dubious morality is a symptom of this malignant growth, achieved by those at the top crushing those at the bottom, breaking their backs and their spirits so as to make them even more ‘flexible’ in the future.