I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: labour doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And yet, we tend to think about this large part of our lives as somehow separate from “real life.” I’m not sure if this need to segment our labour is a product of Western education founded on arbitrary divisions or a way to detach from work lives that, for some, are filled with precarity, malaise, or just plain boredom. That’s another blog post.
Nevertheless, segmenting labour and rigidly defining who does what, where, and how is also a way of ensuring that collective organizing is hampered.
I mention this labour vacuum in the opening paragraph because I’ve noticed lately that the phrase “having it all” has been the focus of a lot of press, both mainstream and feminist. And while women still earn far less than men, this trendy topic is embedded with its own set of assumptions. For one, much of the focus on these issues is urban, heteronormative, cis-gendered, and white-collar. This “you can have it all/bust down that glass ceiling” is also founded on the in-no-way-universal desire to have a family/be a mother.
But when we talk of ceilings, we tend to ignore the remainder of the structure, so to speak—especially the ‘basement,’ an issue Laurie Penny has written about extensively. In Sarah Jaffe’s recent article “Trickle-Down Feminism”, she highlights mainstream feminism’s willful omission of the labour experiences and issues faced by women of colour post-recession and women employed in low-wage service sector and domestic jobs.
“While we debate the travails of some of the world’s most privileged women, most women are up against the wall,” Jaffe writes. “The brave new economy being rebuilt in the wake of the financial meltdown is being built on low-wage service work.” (I strongly encourage you to read the rest of this amazing feature.) Although these statistics are American, consider that women have regained only 12 percent of jobs lost during the recession that began in 2008, while men have regained 63 percent of jobs lost.
To put it bluntly, our labour is interwoven with gender. Some labour is gendered and, in being gendered, devalued. If we look at current labour statistics, the bulk of these exploited positions are filled by women of colour. It’s intersectional, systemic violence. Which is precisely why collective responses should be equally intersectional. For this reason, the current emphasis on the having it all/glass ceiling debate does nothing but work within the boundaries of patriarchy. There is nothing radical about this.
So where exactly does harm reduction fit in and what is harm reduction? In sterile medical terminology, harm reduction refers to an approach to curb the harm potentially generated by certain behaviours. You may hear it in reference to persons experiencing addictions or people engaged in sex work.
My own exposure to harm reduction comes from volunteer work I’ve been engaged in for several years now. As an advocate and ally for the principles that govern this approach to health and social services, it’s clear to me that harm reduction comes from a place of compassion. Harm reduction does not pass judgement, nor does it demand that an individual alter their behaviour to conform to our expectations so that we feel more comfortable. When harm reduction is put into practice, a person is the sum of their experiences. They are whole agents, not broken statistics in need of rescue. Harm reduction is a relational outlook in that it considers the numerous experiences and contexts that inform communities.
So, when I say I’m an ally, I would add to that that my allyship is informed by anti-oppression and by harm reduction. For me, this relies on acknowledging my privilege and listening. It’s not my job to fix anyone or anything, nor is it my job to add my two cents and my experiences to every discussion. As an ally, I can be present, be mindful, and provide support when requested.
While there are practical ways of implementing harm reduction at work (safe working conditions, for instance, speak to this), we can implement a less concrete form of harm reduction, too. When we broaden the scope of this anti-oppressive practice, organizing is easier: it’s nobody’s job to save/fix anybody and labour is not cause for moral judgement. Nor is it productive to maintain the artificial divides that managers or administrators seek to enforce. This intangible on-the-job harm reduction—which I realize has a long way to go as a self-invented concept—acknowledges that workers are not robots performing tasks, but that labour often has an emotional strain that sticks with us even after we punch out for the day. All labour is worthy of respect and it is our right to be fairly compensated and perform said in labour in respectful, safe conditions founded on consent.
In the end, forging connections is the basis of building communities and deconstructing structural violence, whether it’s on the job or off.
For further reading on anti-oppression, labour, and radical alternatives, I would suggest anything by Angela Davis, Selma James, Emma Goldman, and Barbara Ehrenreich (Global Woman and Nickel & Dimed, in particular) to start.