The Middle Class Sweatshop

Christopher Fowler
Tati Lately the conversation around me has been obsessed with the subject. Punishing days, psychotic bosses, unfeasible targets, sleepless nights, zero hour contracts, stress-related illnesses, hours far exceeding statutory regs...welcome to the world of the middle-class sweatshops. Our idea of bad working conditions used to extend to the image of 10 year-olds with bleeding hands making carpets in Egyptian back-alleys, but now we're more likely to be thinking about corporate workers in pastel cubicles staring at emails. Over a dinner party the other night (a very middle-class chilli prawn linguini and tomatillo salad if you must know) I listened to the wageslaves around me explaining why they were aggrieved. First it was jokey; office cutbacks had begun with a ban on the complimentary fruit bowl and stress-releasing office activities like llama-petting - then it took a darker turn. Several of the gathering worked in more than two countries a week, routinely took calls after midnight, were expected to go far beyond normal working hours and be available to answer emails 24/7. They have no say at all in the decision-making process, are required to answer to bosses they never meet, and are hit with year-on-year rising targets that are simply unfeasible. Their opinions have no value, and they're afforded no respect. Treated as replaceable units, they're depressed by their jobs. Their work is stultifying, their pensions are now too low, the chances of a raise unlikely. They're constantly worried about being able to stay in employment and meet payments. There are hidden currents of ageism and sexism working against them. Ha! I thought, I'm immune to all of this, being a homeworker. Then I realised that I usually did some work every day of the year (not counting blogs/social media), that I was radically underpaid (books only reward at the highest level of sales) and that my freelance rate for a national newspaper had just been halved. So I worked out my pay-rate per hour. It was £2.24p. And that's without taking into account the extra-curricular work I routinely handle. However, this is traded against my job satisfaction (very high), which is of course conditional on staying on top. Longform writing is less of a job than a vocation, and like all vocations you continue in spite of, not because of, circumstances.
I was happiest running a company of 12 staff, where everyone had a say and we chose our own direction. By the time it peaked at around 70, it had become untenable. Small independent companies can't hit the rising targets demanded by our society. Corporations might offer activities like flower-arranging or llama-petting, (seriously - corporations hire companies like 'Fun At Work' to deliver stupid on-site activities when they could give the money directly to their staff) but they're band-aids on deeper wounds caused by a fundamental hypocrisy; the illusion that employees are accorded any kind of respect. My former business partner was a Victorian patrician who used to say; 'This is not a false democracy, it's a benign dictatorship.' He believed when staff knew where they stood, they could decide what they wanted. The middle-class sweatshop is not life-threatening. It's not garment workers surviving the collapse of buildings, or having their lungs filled with asbestos fibres. But it's still a damaging symptom of modern life.
Most of the people I know who are caught in the trap are merely hanging on in the decreasing hope that things will get better.


Janet Wilson (not verified) Mon, 09/09/2013 - 10:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

All I'm prepared to say is, I'm glad I'm in a job where I can get by clocking in and out for 8hrs a day, after which my brain's my own. I can walk to work, I've got time for my friends, and I don't have any appearances to keep up. The downside is relative poverty and social obscurity; it's no answer to the wider woes of the workplace.

Dan Terrell (not verified) Mon, 09/09/2013 - 13:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

That sounds really awful. There are many jobs where the hours are long and hard, but I had not thought that might be a day-in-day out requirement.
Did they sign up knowing what was expected? Probably not.
Such work is usually at the top levels in companies, part of political campaigns, during times of urgency, during start-up situations, IT work and Amazon-like firms, the preparation and opening of a play, a film production and release, etc. But mid-level positions?
Where are the national regulations? Or are they so lax or hard to enforce?
You're right, we're back in Dickens' time. Taking five to make a balloon-dog, have a stop at the lav, and eating a round of pineapple doesn't counterbalance the stress of such employment. I smell serious burn out.

pheeny (not verified) Mon, 09/09/2013 - 13:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

People are so afraid of losing their jobs now employers generally feel they can do what they like.
Of course the irony is that happy staff make for high productivity and a willingness to genuinely "go the extra mile" whereas unhappy staff will take liberties wherever possible and in extreme cases take out their grievances with small acts of sabotage

Henry Ricardo (not verified) Mon, 09/09/2013 - 16:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I love retirement! I have more time to read about Bryant & May.

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 09/09/2013 - 19:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Right on, Henry! However, I hear from my former colleagues and it seems that it doesn't matter where you work the pressures are increasing. Our doctor, recently retired, would regularly run his office from 10 am to 9pm and I don't know when he got lunch. He said that office expenses had risen so much he had to get in more patients per day to cover them. (We're universal health care so he got fixed fees) Our new clinic won't provide passport application signatures and there are ads for those extra travel vaccinations all over the walls. My teacher friends have just completed the first week of the new term & one primary teacher said they had gone from three kindergarten classes to two and back to three during the week. That meant a teacher had been let go (nice euphemism) and rehired during the week - because numbers were a little below what they'd figured and the dollars wouldn't stretch. The difference could have been as little as one student. Offices seem to be general hell. As Admin points out, working independently is no bowl of cherries either.

Alan Morgan (not verified) Tue, 10/09/2013 - 09:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I don't have debts to service, so lucky me. I mean, I have expenses to life (a roof, food, bills) but once those are paid for it becomes a case of not needing to work, but sort of having to. It's well worth not having holiday and sick pay (so far) to similarly not have a boss. Capatilism hates me, there's a world of crap I simply don't want. My daughter possibly uniquely is even less needy than I*.

Well, it's new book release time soon from the publishers but laying down an order at the local little bookshop is more of a treat than any real expense.

I'll take up pipe smoking when I get old, and solve mysteries. ;-)

*Apart from Maynard's winegums and cheese so strong it works in the circus. But she even struggles at Christmas to write a list for Santa.

Janet Wilson (not verified) Tue, 10/09/2013 - 09:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Alan, I like your style. I have a bag strap with 3 badges: 'wage slave', 'hated by the Daily Mail', and 'I only look sweet and innocent'. Talismans to keep me cheery..!

David Chapman (not verified) Tue, 10/09/2013 - 12:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I worked in a state government open plan office for seven years until I finished my doctorate earlier this year. While work practices differ between UK and Australia, our office suffered from clueless management and director level staff who rarely divulged the strategic direction to program and project staff, and we were constantly working to deadlines that were both unrealistic and meaningless. For instance, media reports prepared for a ministerial speech that we, the directors and the minister's office knew would never be given but was written just on the off chance. We often worked from 7am until 9 or 10pm. The motivational day was the (very Australian) Christmas BBQ where we would shake the directors hand as he passed us a plate with an anaemic looking sausage.
Amusingly, in an annual employee progress interview after asking me what would motivate me more, I was asked what I was studying. I described my PhD thesis. The director's eyes glazed over and then he said "strategically, that is not of interest to me", thus further reducing my enthusiasm.

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 12/09/2013 - 16:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

David, my husband and I just gawked at that last bit in your post. That is someone with not a single curiosity cell in what passes for his brain. He's pathetic.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 13/09/2013 - 00:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've come across the sort of muppet David describes, in a different context. And it's not indifference on their part, it is the sudden realisation that they are about to be shown up as a mental pygmy and have to shut down the the topic before other people find out.

One I'm thinking of <strike>fled</strike> left the country under something of a cloud.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 13/09/2013 - 00:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Alan, if your offspring hasn't yet tried it, 'Epoisses', [you can still smell it with the door shut. ;-) ]