If work were such a good thing,
the rich would have kept it all to themselves.
— Haitian proverb —
DEMANDING MORE WORK MAKES NO SENSE wrote Paul Lafargue in 1880. More and more workers are coming to that same conclusion today.
Lafargue was Karl Marx’s son-in-law. He dared to question the value of work as an automatic moral good in his essay “The Right to be Lazy.” Working people are possessed by a “strange delusion”, he wrote. “This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work....”
He called out the powers that be for casting “a sacred halo over work.”
He calls on the working class to “return to its natural instincts, ...proclaim the Rights of Laziness and force employers to use “modern means of production” so that workers only need work three hours a day.
A pandemic reset
Lafargue’s ideas don’t seem so audacious any more. The pandemic forced us to work in different ways and in different places and that, in turn, has lead us to rethink what work life can be or should be.
Lori Fox is the author of the forthcoming book This Has Always Been A War. She used to be a restaurant server. Pandemic shut downs turned her into a writer.
Fox says being without work gave her the time to think. The more she thought the more she decided she wanted more out of her life than working at a job where she was considered second class, worked weird hours for too little pay, had no sick days and endured near-constant sexual harassment, racism, sexism and queerphobia.
“You’ll have to excuse us if we’re not champing at the bit to get back to bringing you your dinner,” Fox wrote in an article in the Globe and Mail.
Fox wrote that when she got time to think what she wanted to do she realized it wasn’t “to make a living for other people while we rag-and-bone our way through life.”
Fox was never on CERB. With her hours suddenly open, she was able to grow her freelance business and secure a regular income as an editor. She also enrolled in an MFA program at the University of British Columbia. In the past 18 months, she pitched, sold and wrote her first book.
Fox wrote that “with rewarding work and my hours in my control, I have more time and energy for myself, and therefore more care and attention to give to others. I’m a better friend, lover and community member than I was when I was a server.”
Work less, live better
The pandemic has also exposed inequities that continue to grow in a work regime that’s been around from even before Paul Lafargue wrote. A shorter workweek would be one way to start to correct them.
“After all,” notes David Suzuki, “when people risk their lives for starvation wages while billionaires turn cartwheels in space, something’s wrong.”
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. What follows is excerpted from a recent article he wrote for The Tyee on the benefits of a shorter work week.
“Once the 40-hour workweek was achieved, pushes to shorten it even more began, but stalled. Since implementation of the standard 40-hour workweek in many industrialized countries, everything has changed about work except the hours.
“The labour movement deserves some blame, having fought much harder for increased wages and benefits than reduced hours.
Short work days benefit all
“The reality of work during COVID-19 got many people reconsidering hours again. Studies continue to show that reduced hours benefit not just workers, but also employers and society as a whole.
“Changes to work regimes and hours must be designed to reduce growing inequalities in the current system. ... At minimum, pay should stay the same or increase when work hours are reduced.
“In the absence of an organized labour push in North America and elsewhere, it’s important to shift public service workers to reduced workweeks because governments have “unparalleled control over working conditions within a huge chunk of the labour market,” Will Stronge, research director at the think-tank Autonomy, told the Washington Post.
“Reducing job hours is a good start, but we must also bring our economic and work systems into the 21st century in other ways, with increased minimum wages, vacation time, parental leave, benefits and work-life flexibility. Doing so will create jobs, reduce commuting and pollution, increase well-being, productivity and time with family and friends and -- if done right -- curtail the rampant consumerism fuelling destruction of the planet’s life-support systems.
“Most of us have lived with the 40-hour workweek our entire lives, making it difficult to even imagine a better way. But the system is outdated and destructive. It’s time for change. Let’s work on that!”
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- You can read the full David Suzuki article here.