Shadow labour

Shadow labour

In 1981 Austrian philosopher, Ivan Ilich coined the term ‘shadow labour’ which he defined as work that we aren’t monetarily compensated for. Craig Lambert in his piece in the New York Times, describes seeing a wealthy partner of a law firm at the supermarket self-service checkout, scanning her bar codes and bagging her purchases, completely unpaid. These menial tasks exclude almost nobody regardless of talent, wealth or status. There are countless examples of such tasks that everyone completes daily such as filling petrol, completing housework and paying bills.

Ilich argues that in a culture of subsistence, the work of individuals is directly related to their living needs, however with the development of the money economy there has been a rise in this shadow economy where our toils are not rewarded by wages.

In recent times the prevalence of shadow labour has only further increased. Long gone are the days when a cheerful attendant would fill your petrol tank, check your oil, water, tyres and clean your windscreen. Nowadays the service aspect of petrol stations has been fully stripped and our only interaction is with the nonchalant cashier. Tasks which were previously completed by efficient, willing labourers have been replaced by our inefficient efforts.

Even technology has further created shadow work. An example of this is our process of booking flights. Previously we would simply call up a travel agent, and they would be able to provide us with the cheapest flights, book them for us and arrange transport to and from the airport. However now with the emergence of websites such as Webjet, we now spend hours researching finding the cheapest and most suitable flights – more shadow labour.

Lambert perfectly highlights the irony of labelling the Western world as having ‘service economies’ despite the continuing disappearance of services like elevator operators, gas station attendants and cashiers. Conversely, I have firsthand seen the existence of such services in many Asian countries. In India the domestic work sector is estimated to employ up to 90 million workers, who complete simple services such as cooking, gardening, babysitting etc. Furthermore, not only does this sector exist but it is a growing and thriving one because such services are offered at competitive rates. Jobs such as the milkman, which only exist in children books, are still present in many Asian countries.

So why have all these viable services in Asian countries been eclipsed by the shadow economy in the Western world? Quite simply the answer lies in inflation and uncompetitive minimum wages. Due to the price sensitivity of consumers it is no longer economically viable for such services to exist in most Western economies.

The issue is a simple one in which we can see that Adam Smith’s idea of division of labour is being undermined. Division of labour can be described as the specialisation of cooperating individuals performing specific tasks. Initially, gas stations used to have service attendants, however with increases in the minimum wage the employment of these individuals is no longer possible despite their willingness to work. So instead they continue charging similar prices but we are forced to provide our own labour for this task, thereby eliminating the previous division of labour. This is an inflationary effect in the same way as halving the size of a chocolate bar and selling it for the same price. It is thus visible that inflation is undermining the division of labour and depriving us of such beneficial services.

Without minimum wage laws and regulation, however, a plethora of such services would exist as it does in India. The concept of milkmen would not have to solely lie in childhood stories. The idea of support staff or secretaries does not have to only be nostalgic appeals from TV shows, such as Mad Men as Lambert suggests. There is a certain civility involved in performing small tasks for each other, which Mises describes as the ‘unifying influence’ of the division of labour. He even further adds that “it leads people to regard each other as comrades in a joint struggle for welfare, rather than as competitors in a struggle for existence”.

While many blame the prevalence of shadow labour on automation or the ploys of corporations, government interference within markets still remains one of the most damaging reasons. Although it is impossible to reduce shadow labour completely, the more basic services that are removed, the more tasks we have to complete ourselves depriving of us of the time to do things we actually want to do.