by Tiffany Goldman
In the “New Economy,” many of the available and newly created jobs require that the employees “work remotely.” The employee is expected to furnish the work environment…be it at the local Starbucks––with blaring music and deafening coffee grinding––or in the social seclusion of one’s home. Typically, the employee provides computer equipment, Internet connection, Smartphone with unlimited calls, e-mailing and texting, general office supplies (e.g., high-priced cartridges), and business transportation, subject to escalating fuel costs. Depending on the employer, all, some, or none of those expenses are reimbursed. There may or may not be healthcare benefits.
This is the modern version of the old home-work system prevalent in capitalism in centuries past. Women picked up fabric from the factory, worked on it at home, and were paid by the piece. They had to provide their own space, light, thread, tools, and sewing machines and electricity after those came in. They worked day and night to earn a pittance. Often, their children worked, too.
For years, I worked on the premises of my former employer, a large conglomerate. My new employer, a business start-up, requires that I work at home in order to minimize (their) overhead. While this gives me certain freedoms, I often yearn for the camaraderie and structure of my old environment. Yet, the world I left behind a short time ago no longer exists: the building that once housed hundreds of employees is now an empty shell, with most positions having been eliminated, outsourced, or converted to home-work.
Contrary to the stereotype of the home-work employee as someone who stays in her pajamas all day, I put on a suit each morning and focus on work. I dress for business because of personal preference, but also out of financial necessity. When I worked in an office, I always wore suits, so those are the items in my closet. I am sure I am not unique in this.
I do not own a TV, I do not take food breaks every 1-2 hours, and my online activity is generally job related. The one distraction I do have is cleaning. At 5 p.m., no one comes into my apartment to empty the trash, mop the floors, or restock the bathroom with toilet paper. It is up to me to maintain a hygienic, professional work space. The upside of my home-work situation is that I am autonomous and do not have a boss breathing down my neck eight hours a day. One downside is that I am simultaneously responsible for uncreative tasks like cleaning. Furthermore, as I am in sales and paid commissions only, the time I spend cleaning reduces my earnings potential. It doesn’t take the boss’s presence on the premises to make me work long and hard.
Another downside is the lack of social interaction. There are few opportunities for workers to relate to each other, discover mutual concerns, and put––at minimum––indirect pressure on management to improve their situations. People know better than to complain to each other about their jobs via e-mails that could get back to the boss.
For young employees, the physical isolation of working from home can stifle career growth. They miss out on opportunities to be mentored, learn from co-workers in the same role, expand their knowledge at cross-departmental meetings, and help out during emergencies, when they could acquire and visibly demonstrate new skills. Home-work employees are out of sight and therefore often out of mind.
What would a non-exploitative workplace look like? One Utopian vision guarantees the highest pay for the most distasteful, treacherous tasks. In this topsy-turvy world, I imagine executives who make far reaching, removed decisions being paid minimum wages, while the janitors who scrub the corporate washroom are rewarded as princes. A variant on this scenario is that all tasks––from the menial and mindless to the intellectually advanced and personally fulfilling––are distributed evenly among all members of society. I crave concrete, realizable examples, because home-work is far from non-exploitative.
From my study of Marx, I expect that it is impossible to escape the dictates of capitalism within capitalism. No matter the type of work, it will be exploitative as long as the essence of the system is to get the maximum labor out of people for the least expense. We need to look further than home or office to create non-exploitative work.