In honor of Mayday, I thought it appropriate to discuss what it means to be an “employee, as opposed to a “worker.” You may be asking yourself what’s the difference? And there very well may be none, nonetheless I will try and make my case.
Labor and worker’s rights could have never come about without first questioning the legitimacy of authority inherent in most work environments throughout history. The relationship between those who own the means of production and those who don’t must be reexamined in today’s globalized, hyper-capitalist society. What is the importance of language in relation to authority in the work place? And what does it mean?
In today’s world, products are released sooner and sooner — as is the case with Apple and their very successful IPhone. People anxiously wait for the arrival of the new generation as soon as they have bought the last. And this, of course, comes with a cost.
This phenomenon reveals to us the nature of capitalism; that profit trumps all. Safe working conditions, autonomy, self-determination, creativity, innovation, respect, and dignity are all disregarded once profit becomes the sole purpose of existence.
So what does it mean to be an “employee?” It means you are part of the machine, a gear working in synchronicity with millions of other gears. Mindlessly repeating a task over and over until your will is broken; the “employees” at Foxconn know this feeling all to well. These conditions can help explain why some people at Foxconn have resorted to suicide. But instead of responding to the problem with understanding and compassion , Foxconn thought it best to put up nets around the factory to catch the would be jumpers.
The nature of corporate power creates hierarchies that pits workers against workers and leaves them to fight over the crumbs of the 1%. And in this harsh environment it is easy to understand why many will take jobs that they hate.
The hierarchies created in many work places are seen as a way to maximize efficiency, but ultimately it creates distinct types of “employees”. Type one “employees” are the ones that will take the low paying job because it is the only job he or she is “qualified” for. Cultural norms propped up and reinforced by the rule of free market forces tell us that type one “employees” don’t deserve dignity or respect, because of mostly arbitrary personal characteristics. Depending on where you were born, the color of your skin, what gender you identify with, sexual orientation, environment, and quality of education you got you will be trained and conditioned into the type of “employee” you will become. This system perpetually re-victimizes whole communities for generations.
Type two “employees” are able choose what job to take, and more often than not they will forgo passions and choose a job that will provide an income worthy of their “education”. All of this is only possible because they are so hopelessly interdependent on the consumer driven system. They take jobs they hate to pay for material things they don’t need.
In any of these cases the “employees” have lost autonomy and self-determination, instead of spending their limited time on earth pursuing passions they spend their time pursuing $ymbols ans survival.
How can someone that is busy surviving create or innovate when quality education that enfranchised learning was not provided for them? When the vast majority of their time is spent working for a meager wage that will be just enough to cover expenses until the next pay day. When most of their time is spent working in mentally and in the case of the banking and financial system morally decaying jobs, which end goals are not to develop critical thinking but instead are profit driven.
Type three “employees” prop up the system, they are the 1%, they are the owners. But how can an owner be an “employee”? Yes he or she is not an employee in the traditional sense of the word, but an employee whose job is to perpetuate the system. Type three’s have been able to gain an “education”, they have been able to build and expand their networks including other influential people. They have accesses to capital they able to “create and innovate.” Creating the illusion that the system actually works. Thus the myth of “pulling yourself up from your bootstraps” is perpetuated. I often hear examples of creators and innovators from people in power. I hear Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both dropped out of school, and went onto have successful futures. all of this is possible of course because this is America and with hard work you too can be successful. However neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates started from zero; neither were working minimum wage jobs, both came from upper middle class homes and both dropped out from prestigious schools, Bill Gates from Harvard University and Steve Jobs from Reed College; to say they pulled themselves up from nothing is nothing short of ridiculous.
To be a type one or type two “employee” is to automatically relegate that person to a subjugated position. Like anything in life there are exceptions not all fit nicely into these boxes I have constructed, but more often than not without proper checks and balances, these hierarchies and type three employees will produce a loss of dignity and respect within the workplace and the dynamics of this relationship become exploitative.
And I guess this is where I draw a line as a “worker” I can do work without being an employee and hopefully I’ll be able to keep my dignity and intellectual curiosity stimulated. The real question is can we create a world where we are all workers and none employees?