• Tuesday, Oct 26, 2021
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OP-ED: Our temporal lives

  • Published at 07:41 am August 3rd, 2021
Workers at Sadarghat returning
Workers at Sadarghat returning to join their workplaces MEHEDI HASAN

For most of us, time controls every facet of our existence

We are born, grow up, and perish. In this life cycle -- we must make it count doing something good. In this pursuit, we are taught in childhood that “time and tide wait for none,” and we must structure our lives around efficient time management. 

Hence, we define everything in terms of a temporal frame that we diligently follow. Otherwise, we consider ourselves wasting time. 

Why do we have this fear of wasting time? 

To apprehend this, first, we ought to answer: What is time? The Oxford dictionary refers to time as “what is measured in minutes, hours, days, etc.” Why is time measured? To identify “when something happens or when something should happen” or “the amount of time available to work, rest, etc” and so on.

Time is perceived as the period through which an action, condition, or state continues; thereby, time is also the interval between successive acts or events. Additionally, time refers to the stretch or space of continued existence. With this idea of time, we organize our everyday lives. As such, we have confined our lives with time -- the measure of changeable things.

Our orientation towards time reflects the kind of society we live in. For instance, in a foraging community, there was no need to live following the clock like in an agricultural community. 

In the foraging community, to make a living, people did not need to count their time meticulously to arrange food. In contrast, people must scrupulously spend time sowing seeds and timely care until harvesting in an agriculture-based society. Thus, our lives became entangled with the reckoning of time. 

Similarly, in a capitalist economy, the work process is entirely dependent on a management practice around time. Employers take every action to use the labour time and make sure that time is not wasted. Hence, Historian E. P. Thompson claimed back in 1967 that time acts as a currency. Time enables the exchanges between the workers and the employers. 

The pervasiveness of the idea of time is most evident in industrial work. For example, during my research on a garment factory in Dhaka, when I spoke with the operators on the production floor, I regularly heard supervisors telling the operators, “Nijer kheye boner mohis tarayo na” -- that is: “Do not do something unprofitable at your own expense.” 

To profit in capitalist market exchanges, any enterprise must produce a certain number of products within a fixed amount of time. This target cascades down to the individual workers. Consequently, the primary measure of regulation in factories centres on the duration workers must work. 

To achieve the production targets, supervisors force workers to work faster and to work overtime. One of my interlocutors once mentioned how she regretted the way supervisors compelled them to work late into the evenings. She said supervisors force the workers, saying, “You have to work. The company is paying you; we are not asking you to work for free.” 

Attention to time in the work process is necessary to synchronize labour and production in the industry. Therefore, another dimension springs up, where the factory workers use time as a form of resistance against factory supervisors’ insistence on quick production. 

Regarding the intense production pressure and how they manage this pressure, workers admitted that they do not always care about the supervisor’s demand for quick production. They said that sometimes they try to work faster, but sometimes they take it easy. 

For example, one of my interlocutors said, “The only punishment I may face is that I will need to work a bit longer, and this is better than running like a horse all the time.”

In a factory setting, workers experience a dual nature of the use of time. On the one hand, they become happy when they earn money because of their work. But, on the other hand, when they must work continuously without breaks or holidays, it feels like a punishment. 

For example, soon after the declaration that the garment industries will start operating from August 1, thousands of workers rushed to their workplace when minimal transport was available due to the countrywide lockdown. 

Anyhow, they must report to their factories on time.

Nonetheless, many workers toil, assuming their position in the factory will better their future lives -- as capitalism promises a future of abundance and growth for both the individual workers and their employers.

Like these factories, in today’s world, time organizes everything around the worker-employer dynamics. Our capitalistic world is structured around an imagined future of prosperity, which is constantly sought materially by factory production or other organizational or societal growth/achievements. 

But the future is never attained, or there is no end to it as the nature of capitalism constantly reproduces new targets. Thus, over time, capitalism’s inherent circulatory and never-ending demand for profit becomes a burden for society. 

Time is significant not only in the sphere of work, but we are bound to organize everyday lives following the standard clock: We have set milestones to achieve within a particular period -- complete a degree, get a job, get married, have children, own a house, a car, the list goes on. 

The societal pressure to achieve all these within a specific time brings us nothing but stress. 

The capitalistic society has established notions of “good,” and we are afraid of diverting from it. A sense of “success” has triumphed over us and infused our social attitudes and behaviours with profit motives. 

But as I mentioned, time did not always control our lives as it does now. Therefore, we can always go back to the state when we would not have a fear of wasting time anymore. This is much harder to do than to say, but we must start somewhere.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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