Monday, August 23, 2010

Letters From The Anthill

Have a look at this list of statutory minimum employment leaves by country. Don't forget to scroll all the way down to United States.

Now, I'd call that minimum requirement of zero days (and even the U.S. average of actual leave taken) cruel, especially during times like this when a job is hard to get and difficult to hold onto. Who would ask for leave, however necessary it might be for health reasons, for reasons of relaxation and refueling and for reasons of spending time with one's children, work on one's relationships (or one's house or that great American novel) and so on?

And let's not forget that the forty-hour week is really just a pleasant pretense, these days, in many industries and especially in white-collar jobs with any income attached to them. Sure, you can argue that those "choosing" such jobs are picking the money over the time. But then they cannot really convert that money into time for themselves before retirement. If even then.

Could this be the reason for the fierce consumerism I sometimes lament here? If you are never going to have any real time for living, expensive toys are a good substitute?

Connect the rest of the dots in this story, by remembering the lack of proper maternity leave here, and you might start to see why this scarcity of proper and socially sanctioned time-off not only hurts all workers but also almost sanctions the traditional gendered division of labor:

The Designated Worker Ant is expected to be busy working, almost all the time. The other necessary tasks must either fit into the dwindling number of hours left over after work or they must be picked up by someone else: kids, laundry, those broken and tangled emotional connection threads. The latter work is unpaid but necessary, and the rigid labor market expectations may say that they honor those obligations from the Full-Time Worker Ants but that's just talk. In reality they'd prefer the workers to be robots which can be turned on and never turned off and all "negotiating" (to be discussed later) starts from that position.

The usual outcome is that women, the traditional providers of all those unpaid services, will be more affected by the myth of the Designated Worker Ant. It is women who are more likely to work two shifts: one at paid work and one at home, it is women who are usually in charge of finding and monitoring paid child-care arrangements, it is women who are more likely than men to not become the Designated Sole Worker Ant in ant families which pick this solution but to either work fewer hours for money or not at all, and therefore it is women who fall off the ant career paths more often than men.

But being the Designated Worker Ant is not all good for anyone. People are not ants and workworkwork with a few expensive toys thrown in is not a good prescription for a happy life. Not even for men, though the culture has managed to cast that fate as a form of winning for men though not for women. What it is one wins remains a mystery, however, given the losses of close family relationships, mind-expanding hobbies and time to work on that great American novel or that old family chair with the broken leg.

Why am I writing on this topic again? Probably because I just came back from a very long vacation (not all of it spent vacationing, though), and realized how life-saving it has been, how very necessary, how crucial for making me love writing again. Without the vacation I wouldn't have realized how dry I had squeezed my Inner Lemon, how tired I was, how hard I had worked. Even goddesses who love their work get tired!

So what about the rest of us ants in this anthill? Surely the same opportunity should be available for all of us? We are not robots. Maybe that should be tattooed on every forehead in this country, right next to "we demand better working conditions"?

Yes, something that extreme might be necessary, because the opposite messages keep playing in the media all the time: We Must Work Harder To Win The Globalization Wars! The Chinese Charge Less! The Indians Will Take Your Job You Lazy Ant! Europe Cannot Survive Its Long Vacations And Its Great Laziness!

And even the hesitant little stories questioning these rigid work rules frame the plot with questions such as "Why Do Americans Want To Work So Hard?" As if they were given any choices about it! But note that reading several such stories even I started believing that it's just something about the water here that makes Americans eager not to have vacations. Just the way it is.

But of course the real answer is much simpler: No country got nice vacations by gently asking for them politely, in private negotiations between one worker and one firm. The firm would just laugh at an applicant stating that he or she wanted four weeks off every year, because another sucker could easily be found who wouldn't make that demand. And if I'm applying for a job as a janitor at IBM or the local university I cannot make any kinds of demands at all.

No, all those great vacation rules were achieved through political action and trade unions, and collective action is the only way to get the counterveiling power which makes the corporations agree to more humane working conditions in general. Globalization has increased the power of the corporations to fight such actions, true. But without a renewed collective effort both here at home and internationally those conditions will never improve. Indeed, they will probably get worse.