Phenomenon of human labor
There was the long-awaited year-end vacation, though still limited by the pandemic, but the mess was in the local flash floods.
May 03, 2022
By Father Stephen Lim
There was the long-awaited year-end vacation, though still limited by the pandemic, but the mess was in the local flash floods. The “forced to stay indoors for days” with my otherwise “silent” nieces and nephews, turned out to be an eye opener for our millennials.
Sharing their trendy fusion meals was a joy. Better yet, indulge in their selection of Netflix movies, a rare treat. Better yet, listen to the secret desires of their hearts and the private conversations between the two. It warmed me to see millennials in a different light. Otherwise, even their legitimate grievances over low pay and workplace politics, being misinterpreted as the soft generation without courage or discipline.
Absorbed in thorny pay issues and workplace politics, I wallowed in a sea of negative emotions. Baffled by my displeasure and utter disregard for my much revered work, all for no apparent reason. Still furious a week later, I stumbled upon a fascinating book by anthropologist Karen Ho: “Liquid: An Ethnography of Wall Street”.
A determined competitor to the Wall Street dream turned anthropologist, Karen Ho analyzed the engine of banking: perfect efficiency. In utter disregard of the predictable detrimental effects on the bank itself, but bulldozing over everything, to impose utter hostility that every employee at every level is disposable at the drop of the hat. Moreover, its poignant distinction in the history of capitalism is never solely driven by profit, but the utter disparity between what is best for the company and the interests of the employees. The truth is that business priority not only takes precedence but excludes everything else, including the basic needs of employees.
Touching raw nerves, unlocking my long, dark years of suppressed professional disappointment. It’s shocking that all those years of work confer little fulfillment but feel redundant. But what’s most obvious is that I haven’t yet come to terms with my anger at work that has such a hold on me.
The work evolves in resonance with the human being, his needs and his environment. Likewise, modern labor adapts itself by being prepared as an agent of perfect efficiency, productivity and profit. On the other hand, through human work, we realize our true value and we are images of God. As in the agrarian culture, work improves life and the family. For example, pleasing the whole family in the field. Simply more hands make the job light. But in our current workplace, everything about family and personal life is taboo. As disturbance or intrusion, everything must be eradicated at all costs.
Cultivated work: a bonsai
The job is for professionals; those with relevant and in-depth qualifications and skills. Whether bureaucrats or technocrats, all workers work in sync as a lean production team. Proficiency in computers, the internet, and a cloud-based virtual workspace, work is like a bonsai tree. Artificially supported by an independent and skilful external network of subcontractors to ensure perfect efficiency. All in the state-of-the-art production process at the lowest price but highest profit. The whole irony of our work culture is that we have wholesale bought into its dubious belief that paid work determines our human purpose. Isn’t it true that any attempt to improve human well-being must ensure productive work, if not endless profit?
Such a focus on efficiency and profit has not only dislocated human labor, but comes with an incalculable human cost. Worsening of inhuman working conditions without security or personal development. Ultra-productive, profit-driven work is no accident, for a century ago Karl Marx amply warned of its alienating outcome. With the annihilation of every trace of socialism or communism, the culture of capitalist work is ruthlessly dictating the world stage.
Any reality on the ground, locally and globally, is not only derogatory but dehumanizing. Unsurprisingly, a high proportion of the global workforce feels disengaged, dissatisfied but above all disposable. All indicative of our abnormal and demoralizing work culture. As illustrated by one economist, David Graeber’s gripping book: “On the Job Bullshit Phenomenon”. Of course, the last thing any profit-driven economy endures is shelling out money to workers it doesn’t need to employ. But most companies are handing out money to “useless” “irremovable and unremovable” people on the payroll.
The provocative answer is simple – our work culture, our duty, our obsession or compulsion and the rest is not economic. Instead, blind belief, strong emotion, full conviction, cultural and spiritual, all lumped together. Our mystical work on bonsai deepens. So, change after change, we stay the same. Just for our work culture to change, we have to change ourselves first. We all have a lot of homework on our emotion, culture, and spiritual alignment towards authentic human work itself.
Human labor force: Browbeaten
Study after study has confirmed that the entire global workforce is disposable, thus abhorring their work and predicament, but pulling themselves together under oppressive and depressing conditions due to a deeply ingrained work culture. Working, on the one hand, while putting bread on our table, on the other hand, makes us feel like a victim or a fodder because it gnaws at us.
David Weil, another leading economist, “The Cracked Workplace” highlighted the urgency of assessing the nature, pressure and rewards of our work culture. How justified our depressing work culture is by this propaganda of constant cost cutting in the name of preventing declines in quality, all in full compliance with arbitrary and inhuman standards of procedure and even lifestyle. As gospel truth, all persist in surviving in perfect efficacy. But despite full compliance, all disillusioned; the more we work, the more disposable we become. All in the illusory pursuit of perfect efficiency in making profits.
What we think of as work is important to our well-being. Simply for too long, only paid work has been recognized as the opposite of unpaid, invisible work done outside of clock hours, but life-enhancing human activity. As report after report that the principles of Article 23 – On the Right to Work in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights are thrown under the bus. Inhuman working conditions are the norm rather than the exception. Abused and unprotected workers, business as usual.
Then there are the endless waves of subjugated and capitalized migrant workers without qualms. Any hint of a well-organized violation and systematic enslavement of the work force is reprehensible, if not extremely shameful.
The economically and globally expanding development industry is not only prone to abuse, but devoid of protection and security. It’s all just the tip of the iceberg; human labor today is part of the network of modern slavery without borders.
Human response: conscientious work
Enough reaction. Doubtful beliefs and behaviors all follow like sheep as helpless victim or fodder to this consuming monster of work. Moreover, the reaction not only does us more harm than good, but perpetuates its kind of misery among us. We must be wise; doing the right things rather than doing the right things. Our professional situation imperatively demands our human response and not our reaction.
The hope of an overhaul of our work culture is vain. Being on the ground, our eyes are on appropriate and available resources and responses. Furthermore, we trust in practical human resilience and trust. Like the ever inspiring trends among companies and brands that align their services with core human values. The most confident and happy engaged workers are engaged, enthusiastic and productive.
And then the iconic phenomenon of thinking, talking and working from home during the global Covid-19 lockdown. Although in today’s work culture, both are valuable breakthroughs. Giving us the impetus, the real encounter and the inner space to get out of our work box.
Indeed, the state-of-the-art IT workplace, with cloud-based internet space and online platforms, is a plug-and-play workplace. As all is needed is internet connectivity. Each of us, literally and figuratively, must take the bull by the horn. We must realize that all the valid facts of our given work culture are not a single excuse for us to be conscientious in our work as human beings. We need to leverage our current cloud-based workspace to cultivate a more human work culture.
Finally, assuming and assuming responsibility as the guardian of the work of human self-realization is our indispensable condition. We alone must solve the work that actualizes and improves our own well-being and happiness. Everything else is just distraction or disruption.
The human work that is carried out is inimitable; never created or given by man. Moreover, our current overbearing economic opulence, basic logic tells us, cannot last forever. All, without exception, have a lifespan, all evolving, if not mutating or simply perishing.
Ground zero, calamity after calamity, as always, beaten and broken workers helping, comforting and healing other broken people. Pervasive and tenacious workers realizing our true worth and imagery of God, we rightly restore work as created and given by God.—Catholic today