Friday, April 19, 2013

Menial Labour

I am no stranger to what is elsewhere called 'menial' labour. Growing up in rural Ontario, my first jobs were both physical and monotonous. The same tasks had to be performed day in and day out. The jobs were, almost without fail, dirty jobs--especially when I was cleaning things. I was good at these menial jobs. I wasn't great at them. I could perform adequately the tasks required of me, though I was unlikely to perform them expertly or to take much of my own initiative. The sorts of thinking required to see solutions to very rural and/or blue collar problems was not in my possession.

I also have exposure to white collar 'menial' labour. The most recent bit of experience I can cite comes from last night invigilating a chemistry examination. I thought I would try invigilation out this year, so I threw my name into a pool of potential hirees. A single hour and a half training session a week in advance and a 15 minutes pep talk before the exam was supposed to make our tasks straight-forward and obvious. Then a 25+ person team was sent in a number directions, with an examination 'package' in hand, but more or less without support.

Sent to the room with the examination package, complete with examination papers and instructions for their distribution, as well as a half hour to spare, I realized immediately that someone getting paid a lot more than me had failed to assign the necessary second person to the room. Unable to raise my supervisor on the phone, I started prioritizing tasks. The examination 'circulator' eventually made their way to the room that I was in and realized much the same thing. For some reason, though, it was my fault that things weren't getting done the way they were supposed to get done.

A second person was sent to the room, a half hour after the examination had started, which had been delayed by ten minutes. Having been told repeatedly to follow every step on the invigilation instruction sheet, I relished the oppourtunity to cut corners where corners could be cut. It wasn't my fault, you see. I did the best with what I was given. If my best wasn't good enough, don't blame me for doing my best. Blame my superiors for their incompetence.

This most recent experience with white collar 'menial' labour impressed upon me the dreadful impenetrability of bureaucratic structures, in particular that of those in immediate authority above you. The experience also raised some questions, in my mind, about the exercise of authority is so proceeds so differently in a rural and blue collar world from a white collar world (though my observations would also apply to highly structured factory environment).

As I said above, I was a good worker, but not a great worker. Those persons who I worked under, whether that was in farming, landscaping, moving, or construction, seemed to understand as much. I put in long days of work, and only once or twice over the course of a decade remember being belittled for a failure or mistake. More to the point, those persons with whom the responsibility ultimately laid usually went about fixing the mess that I had made without too much complaint. There is a certain inevitably in mistakes, was the guiding sentiment. Try to prevent them, but deal with them as humanely as possible when they do happen.

I was surprised how vigorously my supervisors made it plain to me that their failings were ultimately my responsibility. There is a certain rationale for doing so, of course. In the moment, I am the one who has to perform in order for their program to be put into action. But the bureaucratic structure falls to pieces when those in charge fail to anticipate an obvious problem and also vigorously protest the smallest exercise of independent judgment in the matter. The bosses not only think you are stupid and incompetent. They treat you like it too.

Why the difference between these two sorts of bosses? It may be that what I am describing is merely a function of the size of the organization. But I have to also think it is a consequence of the sorts of materials being worked on. In the rural and blue collared trades, you work with particularly stubborn, resistant, and in every case also non-rational materials. Fields of wheat do not rebel against you, nor skids of lumber and brick talk back at you. Persons assigned to do a specific task, in highly structured, rationalized processes, on the other hand, are expected to comprehend and implement a set of instructions in very short order. They are also instructed not to think for themselves, which, if something should go wrong, has a real potential to allow things to go from bad to worse in a very short order.

So I wonder if facing stubborn non-rational resistance necessarily inculcates a very different sort of response from bosses than does facing the apparent irrationality of menial wage labourer in a highly structured working environment. Why do we expect different from persons than we do from the non-human sorts of materials that we work on? Arguably, human materials are more difficult to shape to our wishes.

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