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.