How we all started working for free

Ruth Whippman

C 67 article 2049056 body articleblock 0 bodyimage How we all started working for free

When I was a student, back in the early nineties, I had a holiday job at the frozen-food supermarket chain, Iceland.  One morning, presumably fresh from a leadership course at Frosty HQ, our manager called all the staff together to admonish us for our apparent lack of enthusiasm for the sale of turkey nuggets.  “Sometimes I feel that some of you are only in this for the  money” she hissed.  She was cut off by incredulous laughter.  After all, what other motivation could there be for spending one’s weekend restocking a giant fridge freezer?

But in recent years, this manager’s slightly fanciful idea, that money should not be the primary motivation for work, has become a regular theme of public discourse, and a standard expectation of employees of all ranks.  The by-product of this cultural shift is that, unpaid labour, at all levels of society, is becoming the norm.  We are all doing more and more work for free.

Recently, employment minister Chris Grayling  announced that he was pumping an extra £5 million into sending up to 70,000 more of the unemployed into the workforce unpaid.  Through various ‘workfare’ programmes, jobseekers already work at some of our largest corporations for bus fare on pain of losing their benefits.  The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was stewarded in part by desperate young people paid in packets of crisps and the prospect of an NVQ in ‘spectator safety.’  Other profitable companies circumvent labour laws by offering the children of the poor ‘apprenticeships ’ and those of the rich  ‘internships’ , both often thinly veiled covers for lengthy stints of unpaid or barely paid work with no prospect of a job at the end.

Those in salaried employment aren’t exempt from the trend either, with the  TUC estimating that British workers ‘donate’ over 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime to their employers each year. For the vast majority of professionals, contracted hours are an arcane legal curiosity rather than the remotest guide to how a working week might actually look.  Unpaid weekend and evening work is no longer an exceptional response to a crisis, but a routine expectation of an employee and it is a rare worker who feels willing or able to complain.  It’s not just struggling firms or worthy charities who benefit from this wellspring of free labour, but some of our biggest and richest corporations.

This trend can’t just be attributed to the economic downturn and a glut of desperate workers prepared to go to any lengths to acquire or hold onto a job.  The increasing use of free labour long predates the recession and skyrocketed during the boom years of the previous government.  The normalisation of unpaid work is not just an economic phenomenon, but also a cultural one.  In recent years, the narrative of how and why we work has been gradually re-written, creating the perfect conditions for an unpaid labour market to flourish.

A generation ago, a job was a simple exchange of services for cash.  Employment may have brought other rewards, such as self-respect, a sense of belonging or identity, or the promise of future success, but these were incidental spoils, and not a substitute for payment.  But nowadays employees are expected to maintain a public fiction that these more abstract benefits are the primary motivations for work, and that the money is incidental.  It is now no longer enough for an employee to do the job competently and accept a wage packet at the end of the week. Our work is now expected to be a fundamental part of our identity.  We are expected to put our employers needs before our own and to be seen to be doing so.

Innocuous as this may sound, it’s a cultural shift that poisonously favours the employer over the worker.  For as long as companies are able to offer their staff these intangible psychological carrots, they are able to get away with not paying them in full for the work they do.

Much of this is an American cultural import, with US companies keen to instil in their staff a cultish sense of belonging,instead of the focus being on  rights enjoyed by workers of previous generations.  Corporate employee songs are a common way of whipping up loyalty (sample lyrics:  “We built this Starbucks on Heart and Soul”;  “blue box values are the best,  I work for American Express” and “Oh happy day…When Ernst and Young showed me a better way…”)  Walmart shelf stackers sing a daily devotional chant to their multi-billion dollar corporate employers, the same bosses that methodically discourage union membership.  Microsoft boss, Steve Ballmer went viral on youtube with a perspiration-heavy display of corporate passion.

For companies, it’s a perfect ruse.  Like faith healers, the more evangelical fervour they can fire up in their staff, the more they can squeeze out of them, and the less they ask in return.  American workers, like their British counterparts are putting in ever-longer hours for no extra money.  The productivity of the average American worker has doubled since the late 1940s, much of this due to unpaid overtime.  Lawsuits by staff suing their employers for unpaid hours worked  have skyrocketed by 400 percent in the last 10 years in the US.  The companies implicated are not struggling backwater Mom and Pop outfits, but include Starbucks, Walmart, Bank of America, Taco-bell, and IBM.

While in the UK we may have less appetite for straight-up corporate sycophancy than our American cousins, but we have also allowed our work to be re-framed as a central plank of our identity, rather than a means of making money. And as long as we are prepared to be paid in psychological rather than financial rewards for the work that we do, our employers will be happy to comply.

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  • Andy Williams

    Overtime is up to the individual. It’s even an offence for an employer to keep asking you to do it. I won’t do it for less than double tiome and being as I don’t have to then I don’t. And I don’t care how urgent something is – if it’s that urgent they can pay.

  • monsieur_charlie

    I’m retired now but when I was working I noticed a trend towards what was then termed “presenteeism” where office workers seemed to aim to be the last to leave their workplaces. As the work they all did was hardly demanding of a longer working day, I presumed it was due, in the main, to fear of being talked about once they had left.

  • CobbledTogether

    What you say is strictly correct. However, I have substantial experience of colleagues being unfairly treated in other ways to effectively penalise them for not doing as aked over and above their contract of employment. I’ve not held a position in the last 25 years or so where unpaid work isn’t expected as part of an unwritten contract (though never implied/stated at any time prior to starting a new job). The senior partner of a significant professional practice told me at an interview back in 1988 that “we don’t work overtime. We believe in a satisfactory work/life balance”. Needless to say I soon found out (it was a running joke in the firm) that he meant we don’t pay overtime.

  • CobbledTogether

    I presume you say No thank you rather than stick up two fingers – that might well be a disciplinary offence !

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