This is our truth, tell us yours
One of the great lines that gets trotted out during the sex work debate is the line about the difference between sex work and ‘real’ work is that real workers sell their labour, while sex workers sell their bodies. It crops up in the comments to this article by Molly Smith, who I occasionally interact with on Twitter.
I like the idea that somehow, when you’re selling your labour, you’re not selling your body. It conjours up an image of a gleaming pristine world where everyone looks like the cast of the original Rollerball movie, wearing gleaming suits of man made fibres and floating around a head office building that looks like a university campus.
I’m old enough to have grown up when Huw Beynon’s classic books on working in factories were new, and fresh. In my life the tension between bad work and no work (a phrase lifted from this excellent Beynon article about Bruce Springsteen) means I’ve come home from eight or ten hours carrying bricks up ladders knowing intimately that I have rented out my body, and that it is my body that aches so much I can barely stand straight. Now, older, wiser, I sit in the club with my marras as they talk about their impending knee replacements, or hip replacements, and wait my turn; the coal blue scars they earned in the pit are anachronisms of course, but they remind anyone who looks that they have rented their bodies, not just their labour. When Keith does his thing about counting the number of decent managers Newcastle have had on the fingers of one hand you know he’ll hold up his left hand, and we’ll all laugh, complicit in the joke that he only has a thumb and one and a half fingers courtesy of the pit. He’s like all his mates; work and its experiences are written on their bodies and their bones.
Of course, the world has changed, we’re told, and so has work, but if you’re on the line at Nissan in Sunderland the line still never stops and neither must the workers until they can take no more. As is apparent to anyone who’s read Beynon’s 2002 collaboration about the management of change in the workplace the underlying practices of management remain the same; increasing work intensity for the same wages or less.
I shop in Aldi sometimes. I detest the queueing system, the way that, after the queue at the one checkout open reaches four people, the bell is rung and someone shelf-filling on the shopfloor has to rush to the checkouts and open another till. It’s an example of a de-layered and intensified workforce; gone is the distinction between shelf-filler and checkout assistant, and gone are some of the jobs too. If the queues persist the store manager will open another till, and whatever she was doing gets put aside until the queues have gone. That’s the Aldi way, and it’s ruthlessly policed (sorry, performance managed) by the Aldi hierarchy.
Aldi is a hugely profitable business, and, to be fair, pays higher wages than some other shops I could name. Is the woman on her knees filling the bottom shelf then standing to rush to the checkouts only renting her labour? Or will she, in thirty years time, be waiting for her knee replacement, her hip operation, or cursing the way years of filling the freezers have made her fingers too stiff to thread a needle?
Take a walk round any office complex employing older staff, like many public sector organizations. Don’t look at the people. Look at the furniture, the specially adapted chairs for people whose backs can’t cope with thirty years of being in the same position, eight hours a day. Look at the adaptive technology on desks for people with RSI. Focus on the people, the varifocal spectacles they need to work between screen and papers and still be able to look at colleagues; look for the discrete hearing aids being worn by the workers whose hearing has been damaged by too long wearing an old-fashioned headset or a previous career behind the bar or in a factory.
Then look me in the eye, and sincerely tell me we don’t rent our bodies when we go to work.