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Service with a Smile: The Many Faces of Affective Labour

April 25th, 2011     by Meg Pirie     Comments

I must admit that in spite of a checkered labour history that includes wrapping gifts, teaching LEGO, and failed attempts at unionization, right now, I like my job. The work is enjoyable, the pay is fair, my boss is appreciative of the work I do, and to top it off, I can surreptitiously blog from work.

Alas, there is but one downside …

I am a contract worker. My labour, while gratifying, is impermanent. My contract–this veritable proletariat glass slipper–is slated to be wrenched from long-suffering foot at the end of September.

Autobiographical moments aside, my situation is in no way unique. So, what’s up with this? What does this shift to precarious, unstable labour tell us?

Broad, contemporary shifts have seen a lesser role for government and a wholehearted belief in the need for and perceived inefficacy of unions. These political shifts that began with the likes of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney have led to shifts in perceptions of labour as well. Go on any job search website and you will encounter a plethora of part-time, short-term and/or contract positions. On top of that, avenues for recourse when labour violations occur have been largely dismantled. Workplace discourse has shifted from solidarity and community, to individualism and incentives.

Ever worked in a call centre? A restaurant? As a nurse or nurse’s aide? Ever been repeatedly bombarded with some assanine corporate strategy, developed by your “family” from head office? Have you ever babysat or worked as an Early Childhood Educator? Well, you’ve engaged in immaterial and/or affective labour.

When I attempt to define immaterial and affective labour, I always use a personal experience to illustrate this concept. After all, the personal is political, right?

Way back when, I worked as a minion at a Customer Service desk in a local mall during high school and several years of university. The objective? Make shoppers feel comfortable, through services like coat check and highly rehearsed friendly demeanour, so that said shoppers felt compelled to stay for long durations in this altar to consumption replete with wonderful shiny things (read: SPEND THEIR CASH MONEY!).

This job was the apex of affective labour. So, while I had some material tasks within my purview, I didn’t really make anything. The job demanded no particular skill set … except the capacity to remain unwaveringly, freakishly chipper. So, if I’m going to talk like Karl Marx, my means of production (the shape my labour takes) was, in fact, service with a smile. The product was intangible and immaterial. It was a feeling of well-being, comfort, and feeling cared for. This is what affective, immaterial labour is.

Clearly, this involved a lot of performing, especially for persnickety old me. And yes, there is a degree of performance in all jobs; in a lot of our day-to-day interactions, really. But it becomes exploitative to play a role for which you are neither compensated fairly, nor respected.

What I mean by this is that the exchanges with customers or “clients” might seem natural, but this is a highly structured, unequal affair. The exchange of money alters these social relations and entrenches a hierarchy, so that it is no longer two individuals, but rather, a service provider and a consumer.

Thanks, capital. You’ve ruined everything and you will not be invited to my birthday party.

But, jokes aside (someone has to make Marx funny), affective labour is also intensely gendered. Depending on your position, the gendered element of affective labour gets expressed through demeanour, job description, and (often) a uniform that corresponds to heteronormative binaries concerning what gender should look like. Truth be told, any job that requires a uniform is one more way to ensure that workers literally embody the corporate logic and suppress their individuality. In my case, the all-female staff wore skirts, pantyhose, and pumps. While more of a costume than uniform, it ensured that the regulatory practice of gender formation within this sphere was marked on employees’ bodies. Not only that, but the services offered included bottle warming, gift wrapping, stroller rentals and daycare. Sounds like a trip down the Good HousekeepingMemory Lane, doesn’t it?

If you just threw up a little in your mouth, don’t worry. I did, too.

So while my experiences are my own, there are global links and some insightful articles by Emma Dowling and the feminist activist group Precarias a la derive. While there remains a dearth of analysis concerning affect, we have seen a rise in exploitative, unstable, immaterial and/or affective labour. These positions are often filled by women, and young women at that, and there are strong intersections with race that are extremely important to recognize.

Let’s think about the most striking example: child care. What do historical trends tell us? Well, representations of care givers in films like Gone With the Wind are noteworthy. Mammy is big-bosomed, uneducated, yet naturally nurturing and knowledgeable about the ways of the world, especially Southern etiquette. Now let’s think about Spanglish. (If you feel like punishing yourself for 131 minutes, this is the film for you.) The housekeeper in this problematic film is Mexican, she speaks little English, has a heart of gold, is–holy smokes!–naturally nurturing, and while lacking in education is just so wise.

These are just two examples taken from films that speak to trends we can observe in our own daily lives. You could argue that these characters’ are different demographics–one is older and one is quite young–but nevertheless, child care is an intersection in which a specific gender role is performed that is centred on a feminine identity that could never be anything but maternal.

Mentioned earlier, this gender role intersects with racist norms, as well, a phenomenon that is reductive and ultimately violent. Mammy and Flor (the care giver/housekeeper in Spanglish) are made to stand in for their racialized identities so that myriad lived experiences are simplified into one example. This is painting with broad strokes. We end up with a set of characteristics that become automatically linked to gender and race. In Hollywood this is called typecasting, but this sort of typecasting is expressed in our experiences with labour, too.

This is an issue in which we are all implicated. No benefits, no avenues for recourse, exploitative hours and working conditions are significant issues. The more normalized these injustices become within immensely alienating, divisive work places (more on that next week), the harder it becomes to collectively mobilize.

Sharing our experiences within labour is important; anyone who has been employed has had them and it often takes some time before we are able or comfortable enough to speak truth to power in a dynamic fashion and demand change, so please feel free to share your experiences, as well. I would love to hear them. It never ceases to amaze me how effective our contemporary workplaces are in isolating people into monoliths of dissatisfaction. But believe me, if you’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, you’re not alone! And believe me part II, there’s catharsis in the act of telling.

While affective labour is obviously a massive topic that I’ve just begun to discuss, so is resistance. Remember: where there is authority, there is dissent. So, next week I will provide you Shameless readers with a handy list of creative ways to watch the clock: a veritable how-to in everyday resistance along with some tips on collectively organizing.

Tags: on the job

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