Empty Labor : Subjectivity and Idleness at Work

University dissertation from Uppsala : Uppsala universitet

Abstract: This thesis is about how and why employees spend large proportions of their working hours on empty labor, i.e. private activities on the job. It is written against the backdrop of a highly debated subject within critical theory, namely the possibility of individuals resisting taken-for-granted power asymmetries. Critical theorists' stress on ideological power and the internalization of submission calls the idea of a free subject into question. Since labor often appears as the hub of instrumental reason in which all acts of resistance are suppressed, this stress becomes particularly obvious when worker subjectivity is discussed. Yet international statistics suggest that the average time of empty labor per employee is between 1,5 to 3 hours a day. With the overarching goal to understand if these statistics emanate from undercover employee resistance in the form of time appropriation, I interviewed 43 employees who spent around half of their working hours on empty labor. Four types of empty labor could be discerned depending on the employee's sense of work obligation and how much work the job actually entailed: soldiering is the active withdrawal of the employee despite high potential output; slacking is a combination of little to do and weak sense of work obligation in the employee; coping is when the employee wants to perform and there is much to do, but when empty labor is used as stress relief; enduring is when the employee is motivated to work, but work tasks are lacking. Although simulating work is essential to all types of empty labor, only soldiering represents resistance in the sense that subjective motives challenge the organization of labor. Among those with a weak sense of work obligation, the motives for time appropriation varied from personal to more political reasons. However, if empty labor can be incorporated into the organization of work, and the maximal efficiency that sometimes is ascribed to the capitalist production system is unwarranted, one might ask whether any type of empty labor signifies resistance. I conclude by pointing out how the phenomenon of empty labor challenges the very concept of work and its relation to production.

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