I’ve wanted to write a post about work for quite a while but haven’t been able to work it out because of work. So I’m going to justify it now on the grounds that, ultimately, blogging is work, a point I’ll return to in conclusion. To recap, then: Although I have too much work to do to be writing about work I’m going to let myself write about work anyway and call it work.
Exhausted? Me too.
I’m probably working harder right now than ever before in my career. So much for the notion that tenure means permanent vacation. And the biggest irony of all, of course, is that all this work is keeping me from getting my own work done — that is, from finishing the book I’m working on.
And yet I’m in a weirdly productive position to think about work, highlighted in some ways by the fact that I’m working, right now, in an expat situation where work — especially manual labor and service jobs — feels more visible than it does in the U.S. The situation of “workers” in the Gulf has received a lot of attention lately, due to Qatar’s successful World Cup bid. Because the country I live in also relies on a version of the kafala system for large portions of its workforce, some of these arguments — and stereotypes about workers and employers — feel a little familiar.
I’m not an international labor expert, though, nor am I really interested here in critiquing local labor policy. It’s not my job — or my place as a guest here. Plenty of other people are doing that work, and the attention given Qatar’s case is sure to put pressure, eventually, on many countries in the region to reform. Besides, I find it a little odd that some people get more worked up about labor issues in this region than in other parts of the world, something I think is linked to Islamophobia for some critics as much as it’s rooted in a genuine passion for social justice. I also wonder why less attention is paid to improving labor opportunities in the South Asian countries that supply so much labor in the Gulf than there is to unfair labor practices. Workers come here, obviously, because conditions are even worse at home, and yet left-minded HuffPo readers might not think much of toggling back and forth between a story about Gulf labor and a window in which they can order jeans from the Gap that were made by people whose labor is even less fairly compensated — and in worse working and living conditions — than that of construction workers in Qatar. Or they don’t think much about what would happen if all these construction and taxi-driving and domestic labor jobs just dried up. What would that do to already fragile economies in countries that supply these workers?
I really don’t have the training to know what to say about such things. Instead, I’m more interested in thinking through what living here has taught me about attitudes toward labor at home — in the U.S. For instance: I’ve realized that middle-class Americans really don’t like to watch manual labor in process, especially such fundamental jobs as custodial work. Janitors in the U.S. tend to work at night, after white-collar workers have abandoned the workplace. Anyone I know back home who has someone come in and clean — usually off the books — finds it impossible to be at home while that work is getting done. Euphemistically they “get out of her way.” I heard one woman in California this summer — not one of my friends, for what it’s worth — refer to the Mexican cleaners and gardeners she employs as “my little elves” who pull everything into shape while she’s at work. Again, Americans don’t like to watch people work for us. For this reason, it can feel initially unsettling to be in a place where janitors abound, ready to wipe down counters, mop floors, and collect litter. Americans are especially good, I think, at ignoring or normalizing work carried out by illegal immigrants or legal migrant laborers or convicts. How much of the food-growing sector, or the back-end labor in restaurants, or domestic service in the U.S. are conducted under the table relying on unregulated labor from illegal immigrants? Are these all just so many little Ragged Dicks, waiting to climb their way to small business ownership? Again, I don’t really have the training to quantify the comparison of legal migrant labor in the Gulf with illegal migrant labor in the U.S., and maybe there’s no point in making the comparison, but it’s hard not to, especially when you hear Americans get all uptight about labor issues elsewhere.
My daily confrontation with a substantial and visible migrant labor force — working- and middle-class — has certainly sharpened my awareness of my own place in the flows of global capital. Such awareness is another thing that also, somehow, seems less common in cities like New York or LA, where money, like labor, sometimes hides, than it is in newly rich Gulf cities, skyscrapers springing up by the dozen. When I go to the gym in the morning — in my own building (spoiled, I know) — I see a familiar set of faces, people who are employed in the building’s health club. Desk workers (who seem to be Lebanese, women who bring their children to work, or Filipinas, who generally enter the country for work leaving families behind), trainers and lifeguards (Egyptian), security guards making their morning rounds (also Egyptian for the most part), managers (Indian, in this case), and janitors (from Nepal, Bengladesh, or India). Over time I’ve become friendly with all of them, with the exception of the manager. I know most of their names and they know mine, or at least they know my kid’s name and refer to me as his father, or maybe they call me “Mr. B___.” The other day, after saying hello for over a year, I finally asked the morning janitor what his name is. It’s Salim. Middle-class families with white-collar professions from all the countries listed above also live in my building, and the jobs in the health club are by no means equal: a lifeguard’s lot may be boring — sitting up there all day while no one’s swimming, most hours — but Salim is constantly on his feet. He seems to get along with the rest, but I really have no idea what kinds of differences structure their own social relations. I’m sure they exist.
In any case, I’ve become more aware, over the last year, of the structural inequalities that allow me to be in a position to go to the gym in the morning or swim with my kid after school, options not open to some people I see working around me every day. We benefit unequally from flows of global capital, based on accidents of birth, access to education and financial systems, language acquisition, and other such things. Would they all rather be swimming or going to the gym or playing with their children? Probably. Would they rather be teaching my classes or sitting in the meetings I have to sit through? Maybe, maybe not. Would I rather be the beneficiary of an oil rich state, financially provided for without all the work I do? Maybe so. Nothing is clearer than the inequality of it all. I smile at these daily faces, say hi, call some by name, and on we go with our days. Structural inequality existed in New York too, of course, as it does just about everywhere I can think of, but for some reason Americans don’t get too worried about why some sectors of the economy are the special province of certain disenfranchised groups or illegal aliens. They mostly don’t ask where their gas comes from or whose blood, to paraphrase Nietzsche, is at the bottom of all good things.
As a result of such encounters, I feel slightly guilty when I complain about work, and then I feel guilty about feeling guilty, because that original guilt feels condescending somehow, as if I’m not imparting enough dignity to the people whose labor makes my life pretty damn comfortable. Who knows how many people back home are dependent on their wages? Who knows the relative comfort of their lives there and here? Who knows what honor they derive from gainful employment in a distant land? They do. I don’t.
I do know that in a post-Fordist economy like ours, everything’s work, which means that work never ends. (I’ve thought about this a lot ever since I taught this essay last spring.) It never stops. Working out — speaking of the gym — is part of work. We work on ourselves, brand ourselves, market ourselves, sell ourselves. We network, socially. Blogging’s work. Twitter’s work. The damn meeting I have to go to in 15 minutes is work. Time spent with family or friends, with gadgets switched off and attention focused, isn’t work, but it’s not easy to come by, either, and all the stuff we do to support those brief moments of leisure and love feels worth it in the end. I hope someday, when Salim takes home his wages and, with luck, has enough money to pay for a dowry, that he gets to say the same.