04 April 2009

Concerning the Fruits of my Labour

Ah, the silent wind that blows naught but tumbleweeds across the digital landscape that is my blog.

Yes, it has been more than a few days since last I posted, but unlike other periods of self-imposed exile from the tubes this occasion results from more than the usual pitiful attempts at excuses ranging from the classic 'My dog ate my keyboard" to the topical "I didn't want Brian Cowen sending the police to arrest me for gross indecency", all of which mask the rather more truthful "I've just been too lazy".

No, my friends, my recent sojourn is the result of yet another voyage into lands unknown, as part of the occasional series that my internal monologue has come to refer to as "Unkie Dave Investigates".

Over the course of three months between late 2007 and early 2008 I passed through the airport in Wroclaw, Poland, at least ten times. On each occasion I was struck by the tearful scenes of families saying goodbye to loved ones, leaving home in search of work in unfamiliar lands, not knowing when they would be able to return. As it happens, and thanks to the careful mismanagement of our economy by successive Fianna Fail governments, their time in Ireland proved not to be as long and open ended as they originally feared, and today up to 1,500 Polish workers a week are fleeing the decaying corpse of the Celtic Tiger and returning home with little to show for their effort beyond an addiction to Tayto crisps and a healthy distrust of the Irish employer. Given the level of exploitation and racism Polish workers experienced here it is no wonder that "No Irish" signs are cropping up on Polish building sites.

With unemployment each month setting new records and the prospect of the recession metamorphing into a depression the likes of which we have not seen for twenty years, it occurred to me that in the very near future we will no doubt see a reversal of the Wroclaw experience, and Irish ports, airports and bus terminals will once again bear witness to the sight of a generation of Irish men and women leaving our shores for Sassanach lands in search of gainful employment and an escape from poverty.

In preparation for the upheavals next Tuesday's "I can't believe its our third attempt to fix things in six months" supplementary budget will cause in the fabric of our society I decided to get out and about and find out more about life as an economic migrant myself.

Yes, my friends, I have spent this last week in the Czech Republic working in a smoothie kiosk in a shopping centre.

I'll just let that statement settle in for a minute.

Working in an industry I know nothing about, with minimal training, zero grasp of the native language, no understanding of my basic rights as an employee and, as it turns out, no actual monetary compensation for my labour, I quickly started to grasp what generations of my forebears learned on the railroads of the US and the building sites of London and Manchester.

Alcohol is the solution to all of your woes.

Okay, maybe I need to throw in a slight disclaimer here. A good friend of mine recently set up a juice and smoothie business in the Czech Republic, and he invited me over for a few days to catch up and have a bit of a break. As he himself works behind the bar, he gave me the opportunity to don an apron and shirt and spend a couple of days doing some honest hard work (for a change). The rest of the staff were very patient, great trainers, and I appear not to have poisoned any of the customers, in fact some even went as far as to tip me for services rendered*.

It has been many, many years since I worked in any capacity where I was able to instantly see the results of my labour. Working for large corporations, and indeed any managerial role, removes you further and further from the fruits of your toil, until one day you can no longer think of your work in any but the most abstract of fashions. For four years I managed a group of managers who managed another group of managers who managed teams that contained people who did various things with computers that allowed other people to put advertisements on their websites that attempted to influence people into visiting other websites in the hope that a certain percentage of those visitors might purchase goods or services from those sites and ultimately result in those advertisers being charged for their ads and my company taking a small percentage of that revenue.

Sounds pretty fulfilling, doesn't it?

There was something so visceral, so rewarding about the simple act of making a smoothie. Here was an actual item that someone wanted to purchase. As I put together all the ingredients, I knew exactly how much each component cost, and what relation the final price of the product had to the total cost of labour, equipment, rent etc. I knew how many juices had to be sold each day to be in profit, and thus knew exactly how each hour's work that I did contributed directly to the success of the business. I juiced and I smoothied, took out the bins and polished the counters, traveled to the wholesalers and cold storage and then juiced some more, and at the end of the day I went home tired but satisfied. Work was no longer abstract and nebulous, it was definable and tangible. I was no longer alienated from my labour**.

My friend and I had quite a few conversations about the striking difference between the Work:Reward ratio of our last jobs and that of his current smoothie business. I even suggested that there was a business opportunity there in bringing groups of jaded executives and putting them behind a juice bar for a week. A bit of real work, with real customers and tangible results would certainly serve as a healthy reality check***.

Now of course I am idealizing and romanticizing the role of the labourer here, as have many a long list of leftie philosophers and social malcontents, but for me it seemed close to Andre Gorz's ideal of a post-wage-based society of educated part-time workers engaged in multi-activity; Almost all of my co-workers were full-time post-graduate students, juicing part-time to pay for rent, food and books. We had discussions on Cambodian rural poverty, political censorship and journalism in Cuba, Mayan architecture and competition in the Czech travel industry, all of which were conducted through English (for none of them a native language). Essentially my co-workers were working to support their other interests, work in and of itself was not their end goal. By choosing to work part-time (only one worker, the supervisor, was full-time, none of the other employees were interested in full-time work) more workers could be employed, thus what could have been an unfulfilling 40 hours work for one worker became 10 hours work for four workers, enough to support each of them to the level they wanted and allow them to concentrate on other pursuits.

The rewards of multi-activity, where workers toil for less hours at a greater salary (perhaps coupled with a government-provided supplemental income funded by a luxury tax), and thus have more time to spend on education and research, creative pastimes or social and community activities, are obvious. All it would take to happen is for a society to agree that it is no longer acceptable for the richest 1% to have such a disproportionate amount of the total wealth in that society, and that wealth should be spread more equitably.

This doesn't necessitate revolution, just higher taxation on earnings judged to be grossly above societal norms. Labour have called for a third tax bracket of 48% on income over €100K, an idea that is gaining traction, and will certainly gather more steam if the Government's emergency budget on Tuesday is seen to be disproportionate in its measures. Given their track record of the Income Levy, the State Pension Levy, and the lack of any change in the corporate tax in their last two attempts it seems likely that yet again the poorest in society will pay the most. Redistribution of wealth no longer seems a fanciful political notion when the majority of the electorate have lost their own wealth.

As "Eureka!" moments go, it might not compare well to Newton's apple tree, or Luther's "Tower Experience" (which actually happened on the toilet), but the last few days spent in a small kiosk in a shopping centre on the outskirts of Brno have set off a horde of lightbulbs in my head.

Oh, and the juice was pretty tasty too.

* Alas, as I was not being paid a single cent for this work and looked forward to my share of the tips as a hard-earned reward, somehow we never seemed to get round to the divvying up of the tip-jar, no matter how often I raised the subject.

** Or at least I would have been if I had been paid.

*** Much in the same way as this recession should serve as a healthy slap across the back of the head for today's narcissistic, shiftless youth. Get a haircut, you damn punks.

Pictures from Brno, non-smoothie related

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At 8:05 pm, Anonymous Felix said...

I really loved reading this post. I might have to read it a few times, because it had so many ideas in it. But I love the sense of adventure, play, curiosity and life-experiment that's going on in here and the sense of the quest to understand the work:life-meaning balance. How you managed to pack some economic history-of-Ireland, some contemporary economic politics and heck even a smoothie in such a great post, I don't know. But it was fabulous to read.


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