Care and clothes: reimagining the value of labour

Productivity-centric assumptions about how labour is afforded value don’t hold up. We need to extend critiques of undervalued labour beyond those that we see as having ‘social value’ in order to engender improvements in the material value of labour globally

This blog is Part 3 of our new series on ‘Studying an uncertain future‘ written by members of SPERI’s doctoral researchers network.

Interested in purchasing an NHS branded t-shirt, £5 of the price of which is donated to the NHS to support the COVID response? This appeals to the sensibilities of citizens concerned for the capacity and wellbeing of our health service and it’s staff. But what about the worker who made the t-shirt itself? Garment workers have experienced wide ranging insecurities as a result of the pandemic through brands cancelling orders with suppliers, a lack of financial support for lost work and insufficient safety precautions where work is available. Yet they have not received the same level of attention by people in the UK which has been afforded to workers whose labour is of direct significance to their own wellbeing. This demonstrates how discourses arising from COVID-19 afford social value to some workers- showing public appreciation for the kinds of work that ostensibly keep society moving- while obscuring the labour of others. This blog will argue that we need to move beyond this, developing a broader critique in public consciousness about how labour is systemically undervalued, in order to obtain improvements in the material value (measured in decent wages, conditions and protection of rights) for undervalued work globally. This also requires moving beyond neoclassical assumptions about the value of labour being determined by their productivity, termed here productivity value.

The way labour is valued globally is broken. Since the 1980s, wages and working conditions have been squeezed and national economies compete with one another. Meanwhile, wealth has become increasingly concentrated, and billionaires proliferate. Labour receives a declining share of value created globally, and productivity growth is becoming decoupled from wage growth. This is occurring in the context of the persistent and intersectional undervaluing of the labour of women, people of colour, migrant workers and workers in the global South

Neoclassical assumptions about differential marginal productivity to explain the variable payment of wages between different kinds of workers are shaky; workers are integrated in complex production networks whereby the individual productivity is impossible to extract from the broader processes of value creation within which they are situated. For example, a garment worker in a labour-intensive role is paid a poverty wage, while the Head of Marketing for the European retailer they are producing for is paid a six figure salary – but both are indispensable to the creation of value in the industry. So what does explain vast differences in the valuation of one kind of labourer relative to another? Another potential factor is the elasticity of labour supply, where higher wages are conducive to retaining ‘highly-skilled talent’. While this may explain one given justification for the practical variation of labour value, it does not explain the ever-growing disparity between the highest and lowest paid, or the systemic undervaluing of the labour of particular groups. The productivity value of individual workers is insufficient as justification for the undervaluation of work, and as an explanatory concept for variation between the value of different kinds of work.

Ultimately, structures of power and politics coalesce to create a range of outcomes for waged labourers both globally and nationally. This includes power and hierarchies of profitability between and within sectors themselves. It also includes power between organised workers, employers and governments through various configurations of industrial relations. In recent decades, the erosion of union rights in many countries and repression of freedom of association has skewed this balance in favour of employers making it increasingly difficult for workers to advocate for material improvements. The oppressive and intersecting structures of race, gender, class, geographical location, migration status and ability cannot be overstated. Labour’s value is not determined by objective, well-functioning market calculations of productivity, talent or needs, but is the result of a complex set of political processes that are historically and contextually situated. If they are situated, they are contingent, and therefore changeable.

In the UK, COVID-19 has presented a unique moment of exacerbation and exposure of the intersecting power systems that structure labour valuation. We see an increase in the social value afforded to certain jobs, particularly carers, nurses and supermarket workers. There has been mainstream media coverage of the poor pay and working conditions of care work and every Thursday the nation congregates on doorsteps to clap for our carers while corporate TV ads proclaim free pizza and mobile data for NHS staff. The importance of care work for our own social reproduction has been cast in a new light; social appreciation for those that keep us alive is growing.

However, the material value of such work (in terms of the wages they receive and the conditions and rights workers are afforded) does not reflect the social value placed upon it. Care work is woefully undervalued, as is the tendency in feminised sectors. The gap between social and material value can also be seen in rhetoric around ‘pulling together’, such as asking furloughed workers to fill agricultural job vacancies in the absence of migrant workers on very short term contracts with insecure hours, low pay or sometimes even on a voluntary basis. Furthermore, the heroism of key workers is frequently promoted by many, yet concrete discussion of material gains for these workers is yet to permeate the public discourse of their social value. We are beginning to recognise and appreciate the work of low-paid sectors, but if this is not extended to encompass the material undervaluing of such labour, we risk depoliticising these jobs which in turn creates further barriers to tangible improvements in wages and conditions.

The social value of work – even if it were to engender material improvements – also falls short as it displays a bias towards supporting the kinds of work that directly impact one’s prospects for social reproduction, as demonstrated in the case of the NHS t-shirt. This utilitarian approach to valuing labour socially is being seen in the UK, with COVID laying bare the essential jobs we need to provide healthcare, food and basic public services. Such social value and appreciation is not afforded to many other kinds of less visible workers. 

In order to engender a true shift in how we value labour, we need to think beyond utilitarian logics about whose labour directly benefits us (social value) and economistic notions of wage levels as relative productivity (productivity value), and extend critique beyond the precarities of the COVID-19 economy to address the structural precarities of capitalism and to improve pay, conditions and rights (material value). The public conversation on revaluing labour is beginning, but we must develop a broader critique of the undervaluation of labour, and make-visible pervasive gendered, racialised and geographic hierarchies that structure the political economy of labour and work. A radical discursive shift may offer essential support to the realisation of widespread material gains for workers globally.

Read all the blogs in our series on ‘Studying an uncertain future‘.