A May Day Salute to Invisible Work

May Day — the first day of May — was traditionally a day to wear flowers on your head, dance around a Maypole and welcome the arrival of spring.

It became a day to celebrate workers in honor of the Haymarket Affair — a peaceful gathering in support of the eight-hour work week in Chicago on 4 May 1886 that turned into a violent confrontation between police and protesters and sparked widespread panic about immigrants and labor leaders.

In the Soviet Union, it became synonymous with military parades that were heavy on the hardware.

May Day Parade, Moscow, 1964. (Thomas Taylor Hammond, (1920-1993), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

May Day Parade, Moscow, 1964. (Thomas Taylor Hammond, (1920-1993), CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

It has nothing to do with “Mayday” the distress signal, which is derived from the French for “help me” — m’aidez. (I include this fact for no other reason than that I just learned it.)

As the Spectator (unlike the Halifax Police Force) has no military hardware to speak of and tends to trip on the ribbons when it tries to dance around the Maypole, it will instead mark May Day by considering the phenomenon of Invisible Work.


Mental load

The term “invisible work,” I’ve discovered, has more than one meaning, but for the women organizing today’s “symbolic” strike in Québec, it refers to the myriad, unpaid tasks associated with running a household — tasks that still fall disproportionately to women.

This May Day, as Rima Elkouri explained in LaPresse, women are being invited to give up one such task and tweet about it under the hashtag #CestAussiDuTravail (It’s also work).

Elkouri cites the latest Stats Canada figures which show that women, in general, spend an hour more than men (and almost three hours on average) cooking, cleaning or doing laundry each day. And if they say they’re doing a little less — and men that they’re doing a little more — Elkouri isn’t buying it. Women, she says, chronically underestimate how much they do because they’re comparing themselves to their mothers, who welcomed them home from school with “warm cookies” and washed everything “whiter than white;” while men, comparing themselves to their fathers who “never changed a diaper,” tend to overestimate how much time they spend on housework.

But it’s more than just the physical tasks, it’s the “mental load” of running a household, described by one writer as:

…the running commentary that plays in the minds of (mostly) women, of all the things that need doing that no one else sees but you. And the mental load doesn’t respect downtime. You may be snuggling with your partner in front of the TV, but you’re actually wondering if it will rain on the laundry overnight because the kids are down to their last socks.

Think of a household like a company running several ongoing projects all in different stages (cooking, cleaning, laundry, bills, maintenance, childcare, etc.), and you’re the project manager for all of them.

It’s a concept illustrated quite beautifully by a French cartoonist, known only as Emma, in her comic You Should’ve Asked (Faillait Demander):




(For an interesting take on another aspect of this issue, see this New York Times article about how when a couple with children are both employed in what I’ve just learned are called the “greedy professions” — basically law, finance, consulting and other occupations that pay you well but expect something close to complete devotion in return — the woman will often opt to take a lower-paying job in order to care for the house and family.)


Unpaid interns

Québec seems to be a hotbed of unrest over invisible work of all types.

CEGEP students in that province have been agitating for three years for an end to unpaid — yet mandatory — internships. They want interns to get the same protections afforded other workers under Québec’s Labor Code.

Amélie Poirier, who helped organize a five-day student strike last November that saw thousands of CEGEPians take to the streets, told the Montreal Gazette that unpaid internships are most common in fields dominated by women, like nursing, teaching and social work.

Back in March, the CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti did a segment on the subject that included an interview with Laurie Bissonnette, who studies social work at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Bissonnette explained that she’d done an eight-month, unpaid internship while working full-time — something she was only able to do because she had help from her parents.

She pointed out that internships in computer science, engineering and finance are paid while internships like her own are not.

Alexandre Frenette, an associate director at the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, Tenn, told Tremonti that nursing, social work and education — “so-called women’s work” — tends to be devalued and to be seen:

…as something that is done out of caring, out of a labor of love, and the type of work — like social work or education — where the worker gets various kinds of non-monetary benefits…

Quebec’s Higher Education Minister Jean-François Roberge had promised to release his plan for internship remuneration at the end of April but he hasn’t.


DIY Economy

And finally, a non-gendered — and very topical here in Cape Breton — example of invisible work: the work — sometimes called “shadow work” — that’s been off-loaded onto us as shoppers by the self-checkout phenomenon.

In researching this subject, I’ve discovered that that the first attempt at something like a supermarket shelf-checkout was made almost 80 years ago by the same man — George Saunders — who invented the modern grocery store (i.e. one in which shoppers could choose their own produce and products rather than approaching a counter and having a clerk fetch and package things for them).  Saunders is the man behind America’s Piggly Wiggly grocery stores, but he also had a short-lived chain called Keedoozle where, according to Laura Bliss in CityLab:

…items were kept in separate glass cases so as to be easily seen and never handled. Entering customers received an aluminum “key” with a roll of ticker tape attached. They shopped the product windows as they pleased, slipping their key into slots in the displays and pressing buttons that punched Morse code-like data about their desired products. At the checkout, a shopper handed her key to the clerk, who simultaneously rung up the receipt and transmitted the key’s record to a backroom. There, workers bundled orders and sent them out to customers via conveyor belt.

Saunders’ experiment — which stretched over 10 years and three locations — was ultimately unsuccessful, thanks to buggy wires, slow conveyor belts and customer reluctance “to buy produce and meat they were unable to physically inspect.”

In the snack aisle, a customer uses an updated version of the key. (Memphis Public Library via Michael Freeman of Mike's Memphis Tours http://www.memphisroadtours.com/)

In the snack aisle, a customer uses an updated version of the key. (Memphis Public Library via Michael Freeman of Mike’s Memphis Tours)

But it was also, as Bliss notes, prescient, although it would take a few decades (and the invention of barcode scanners) to get us where we are today. It wasn’t until the late ’90s and early ’00s that companies like National Cash Register (NCR) Corporation, Optimal Robotics and Productivity Solutions Inc (PSI) began pitching the idea of self checkouts to supermarket chains.

And at the heart of that pitch was one thing, writes Brian Merchant in a Gizmodo article called “Why Self-Checkout Is and Has Always Been the Worst”:

…the pitch from the automated checkout makers was and is all about labor savings and much less about any perceptible improvements for customers. The automated checkout companies do try to nod to some consumer benefits, but it’s a distant and deeply secondary tier of the sell.

So stores like Kmart, Walmart and Home Depot invested in self-checkouts and rolled them out to what Merchant described as “mixed success.”

Actually, people mostly ignored or hated them, for the same reasons you probably still hate them today—items wouldn’t scan, sensors went haywire, and a cashier or supervisor had to be called over to reset the machine or enter some arcane code every other item.

Since then, he says, things have improved — a little — but the number of automated tellers in use (in the United States, at least) has “leveled out.” Some chains, like IKEA, have even abandoned the technology. 

But where they exist, says Merchant, the machines offer employers an opportunity to reduce worker hours — even if the system doesn’t really work. This is a phenomenon known as “fauxtomation” (yet another thing I’ve learned writing this article) in which:

…companies…slash wages, hours, benefits, or entire jobs, regardless of whether the system replacing them is actually up for the task (it often isn’t)…

It also introduces another layer of “invisible” work into the mix. Merchant spoke to Alexandra Mateescu, an ethnographer and researcher at Data & Society, who explained that:

Employees…hired as cashiers have to learn how to do things that are not at all in their original job description, like [how to] repair malfunctioning machines, how to walk shoppers through the system, and how to soothe them when they became frustrated, lest the worker face management’s displeasure…

All this, Mateescu says, is invisible labor; the kind of work that’s absolutely necessary, but isn’t recognized by management—and employees are rarely trained or compensated for [it].

Merchant ends by questioning whether automated check-outs even save companies money given the steep initial installation costs, software licensing costs, maintenance costs and — most fascinatingly — the costs associated with increased shoplifting because shoplifting from self-checkouts seems to have become such a thing it made The Atlantic.

In 2018, Rene Chun wrote:

Self-checkout theft has become so widespread that a whole lingo has sprung up to describe its tactics. Ringing up a T-bone ($13.99/lb) with a code for a cheap ($0.49/lb) variety of produce is “the banana trick.” If a can of Illy espresso leaves the conveyor belt without being scanned, that’s called “the pass around.” “The switcheroo” is more labor-intensive: Peel the sticker off something inexpensive and place it over the bar code of something pricey. Just make sure both items are about the same weight, to avoid triggering that pesky “unexpected item” alert in the bagging area.

To add insult to injury, researchers (criminologists) at the University of Leicester put some of the blame for this rampant larceny on the stores themselves, proposing that:

…retailers bore some blame for the problem. In their zeal to cut labor costs, the study said, supermarkets could be seen as having created “a crime-generating environment” that promotes profit “above social responsibility.”

In the end, though, Merchant posits that even with all these additional costs (including the shoplifting) added in, the machines are probably still worth it “so long as they allow the chain to justify reducing [the] hours of its part-time employees.”

Workers of the world…do I even have to say it?


Featured image by KenL, Maypole Meadow, 2004 New York Renaissance Faire, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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