The ‘good worker’ conundrum

As work increasingly prevents everything else in our lives, at what point do we say 'enough'?

The prime minister’s private industry and investment adviser recently stated that there is no unemployment in the country but a shortage of workers in several sectors. He also claimed the shortage of skilled workers is much more severe than the shortage of the basic workforce. Similar statements make the headlines as different industry leaders repeatedly claim that they do not find enough skilled workers.  

Reading the claims, I remembered that in 1976 Richard C Edwards authored an article about “what makes a good worker”. He was interested in identifying attributes and behaviours rewarded in large companies. Richards argued that even though labour is bought and sold like a commodity, the use of labour -- the human capacity to work -- entails that labour cannot be treated like other inputs in the production process. Instead, having the right attitude (something beyond the technical expertise of any task) is essential if someone is to be recruited or excel in a company.  

Thereby, one could claim that from the employer’s perspective, particular features comprise a “good” or valuable worker. So what characteristics do employers seek in their employees? To understand the fact, we must first appreciate that labour is useful only if the labour-power is put to work. However, extracting “work” from labour depends on the workers’ motivation, diligence, discipline, and loyalty -- and all employers encourage employees to practice and display such traits. 

For instance, when I asked a garment industry production supervisor “what makes a good operator?” he replied, “one who is loyal to the work and demonstrates good behaviour is a good operator.” Supervisors expected operators not to protest when they set a production target. Thus, a “good worker” would adhere to the factory’s production schedule and express total dedication to attain the production target.

Hence, workers with class consciousness, or who would negotiate the production target, may appear disruptive to the work environment. Therefore, employers establish organizational structures, including rewards and punishments -- in terms of performance bonuses and or overtime curtailment. In every sector, companies formulate hierarchical and authoritarian power relations to control the employee -- forestall strikes and rebellion, and ensure adequate diligence in day-to-day performance. In this endeavour, we find the proliferation of “bureaucratic control” within modern companies. 

The defining feature of bureaucratic control is the institutionalization of hierarchical power. For example, every corporate firm now uses specific rules -- sometimes labelled as work “culture” or norms of that company. Work activities are defined and directed by the established rules, procedures, and expectations. Moreover, it is against such criteria as dedication, innovation, self-motivation, achieving more than targets, etc, that the worker’s performance is measured. 

Another example would be employees of different companies having to prepare internal budgets for their activities. But the people involved also have targets to save from the budgeted cost as their key performance indicators. 

These requirements somehow responsibilize the workers for regulating themselves following the set standards. Workers who can follow the established criteria are valuable to a company. Accordingly, employers seek out and reward their workers. For instance, employers give prizes to their employees annually -- as the best employee, rising star, best team member, etc. Just as technical skills make the company’s operation possible, these traits of its employees facilitate its operation.

This idea of the “good worker” does not only influence the production process. Our so-called commitment to work trumps our whole life. If a friend asks us to meet up, we usually browse through an extensive list of deadlines to find some time when we are not working. Even if we find some time, we typically carry laptops and keep working or thinking about the tasks we are involved with. It is not because we live in a society where people do not differentiate between work and leisure, but because work has become the major path towards finding our true selves.  

In the contemporary world, work is the basis of human dignity and the measure of individual achievements, and we keep labouring towards an illusion of “success.” For example, corporate sector workers are expected to work even after designated work hours. Even if a meeting is proposed after work hours, everyone hesitates to point out that their families are deprived. Instead, working late has become a measure of our dedication to work and our commitment to the organization; hence, the labouring humans are ripped off from any possibilities of shared action. 

We have reached a situation where work prevents us from everything else in our lives, even though socially necessary labour began declining in the 1920s. We live through a historical moment when the piling of more work and increasing productivity has become pointless and absurd, as David Graeber pointed out in the 2018 book Bulls*** Jobs: A Theory.

But how can we let go of “work” and avoid being melancholic or anxious about it? We must not hold on to the idea of “job well done” as our goal in life. Instead of looking for a possibility of creating full employment, what if “we prefer not to work.” 

To establish a post-work world, we need a double-edged agenda: We must demand and allow fair distribution of resources as at the heart of increasing intensity of work is the issue of unequal distribution. As workers, we continuously earn a lesser share of the output; consequently, we are forced to work more to live a desired life promoted by our cultural ideals. So, we must also start a cultural change by forming a counter ideology of the “ideology of meritocracy” that forces everyone to remain engaged in work. 

The solution could start with providing basic income not as a supplement but as an income which is enough to live on. Thus, livelihood will be split from work entirely. Of course, with this form of basic income, we might have to pay a lot to get the essential services, such as cleaning, food production, care or service work done, but no one will be forced to work unjustly or pointlessly anymore.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.