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The Weight of Wages

Elizabeth Dietz explores the frequently overlooked emotional component of  labour

In the modern economy, along with greater economic uncertainty, there is an increased demand for emotional labour. Emotional labour here refers to the process where workers manage their feelings in accordance with organisationally defined rules and norms. Pret A Manger even trains its workers to exhibit qualities like being ‘genuinely friendly’, and not ‘just being here for the money’. Penn State organisational psychologist Alicia Grandey calls emotional labour ‘invisible work’. From studying burnout and exhaustion in call centre workers and bus drivers, she concludes that the emotional costs to workers are large enough that emotional labour expectations should be dropped. Yet why do they persist, and why is this work not compensated for?

The rise of  ‘service with a smile’ is connected with economic uncertainty. Some argue that it is post-crash precarity that is causing the rise of emotional labour, with the spread of zero-hour contracts and temporary employment. With a globalised workforce and overall higher unemployment, there is more competition for work – and thus employers can demand more from workers while paying them less and offering them lower job security. In what economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin calls ‘cultural capitalism’, where experiences are commodifed, customers feel they are paying not just for the act of consumption, but rather for an identity – a ‘feeling’. While we might suspect that the Starbucks barista handing us our Pumpkin Spice Latte is underpaid, we don’t want to be served by someone who seems like they hate their job.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term emotional labour after studying female fight attendants, observing how they ‘managed’ their feelings in order to produce an atmosphere of calmness. Beyond what we do in our jobs, unpaid emotion work is part of our everyday life. Yet with the shift from focus on manufacturing to service, Hochschild points out that emotion takes a larger and larger place in the formal economy. This particularly applies to ‘people jobs’ such as care, service or retail work – jobs that tend to pay badly. Indeed we might argue that it is precisely the high component of emotional labour that makes this work ‘low-status’ and ‘low-pay’. Importantly, this is also work that is predominantly done by women, migrants and minorities – making these groups disproportionately affected by the increased demands for emotional labour and its lack of financial compensation.

However, it is not only these jobs that require workers to ‘manage’ their feelings, even office workers perform emotional labour when they smile at their boss while receiving an unfair critique. A study from the University of Minnesota found that when men shift to jobs requiring increased cognitive labour, they get an average wage boost of 8.8%, but when they move to positions demanding more emotional labour, they experience a 5.7% relative drop in wages. Consequently, it cannot only be the connection with service work and vulnerable workers that explains the poor wages for emotional labour, since this trend persists in all sectors. The researchers suggest that this is because many jobs requiring emotional labour are seen as ‘vocations’, and employers know they can get away with paying less for work that people ‘love’ doing.

Although current economic insecurity is making the issues surrounding emotional labour more visible, neither precarity nor the gendered nature of emotional labour is new. Perhaps examining its role in our private lives can offer us an explanation for why emotional labour is not considered ‘proper work’ to be compensated for in the formal economy? The domain of emotion and the labour of caring has traditionally been placed on women, and this work’s displacement to the private realm has rendered it informal, unpaid, and ultimately uncertain in nature – despite its necessity in making the formal economy functional. In fact, philosopher Silvia Federici argues that it is domestic and reproductive labour that allows capitalism to be profitable and that this is precisely why it is not monetarily compensated for – even as this kind of labour increasingly becomes integrated into formal jobs. Her ‘Wages against Housework’ campaign, echoed by the modern feminists behind #GiveYourMoney-ToWomen, attempts to bring emotional labour into the realm of regular labour, in order for it to be recognised, discussed and compensated for – and possibly rebelled against. Given how current economic uncertainty is allowing the demands for emotional labour to grow at rapid speeds, it appears that these questions are as relevant now as ever.

Unless we challenge what is considered valuable labour we are bound to remain stuck in an economy perpetuating inequality – an economy increasingly characterised by fake smiles and exhausted workers.

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