“Ideas do not exist separately from language…” Grundrisse, Karl Marx.

Is it just me? In public discourse on employment matters, members of the workforce are typically or increasingly referred to as workers. Why the simplification? Is it too hard to find another turn of phrase to describe people who undertake paid work? Where did this come from?

The notion of the worker conjures up images of an army of ants working to task. The great German economist and social thinker Karl Marx used the term as a collective (working) class to express workers’ solidarity as a means to resist their continued exploitation by the ruling class within the emerging capitalist system of 18th century industrialization in Europe. The context Marx referred to is totally different to the post-industrial highly mechanised, digitised, and service-related economies driving much of global workforce of the 21st century except to say that labour of course remains the source of productivity and therefore or thereof profit margin.

Marx did not conceive of work necessarily as merely a job. For him work was integral to the essence of man, his humanity. He was concerned then that with increasing exploitation, through the extraction of surplus (profit), of the labour of the working class by the ruling class that man would become ‘alienated’ (thinkers of Marx’s ilk did not consider women at the time). Marx identified four main forms of alienation as a direct result of the capitalist division of labour, social stratification based on class and the extraction of surplus. Alienation from his product, the act of production, his self-worth and nature (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844).

Marx was talking about the value of work being done by the ‘worker’ rather than the labelling of people as workers. Taking pride in the work being done and the meaningfulness of the ‘product’ created. Not so long ago, we would have referred to this as a vocation, a career, a form of employment, a title befitting the work being carried out even for humble work such as cleaning.

The label of workers is non-sensical though because everyone works in some form or capacity, the logic of this being therefore that everyone is a worker. However, that is simply not the case because not everyone who in engages in paid work is called a worker: athlete, actor? My suspicion is that ‘worker’ provides a cover for the fact that the category of employee, or staff member, is fast disappearing given that much of work is casualised or contracted out. They are no longer referred to by their actual job description, no longer employees or members of staff. Is this because just about everyone is either casual or on a contract, or a self-employed contractor? With only a diminishing handful of people enjoying the privilege of regular ongoing employment, does this not dehumanise people further by taking away their vocation however modest?

Is it the workplace that defines the worker? Is this about people who do casual or seasonal work? Does the worker in essence imply reference to ‘unskilled’ members of the workforce such as – carers of elderly or children, cleaners, possibly even ‘semi-skilled’ such as trades people, drivers, cooks, caterers and so on. A mobile labour force including migrants who are ripe for exploitation with little rights afforded citizens. Some professionals are, on occasion, referred to as workers: teachers, tutors, nurses, public servants, administrative staff. However, I don’t hear of medical professionals namely doctors, politicians, musicians, designers, or pilots, for example being called workers. They, instead, are referred to by their profession.

Work used to be something we could do and be proud of. My father did seasonal work. He was a shearer, a fencer, a farm hand, builder, painter, wood chopper. He was really good at whatever he turned his hand to. He was well thought of by the people who hired him. I did not think of Dad as a worker. I thought of him as doing work to feed his family. I started out doing menial tasks during school holidays working in a hotel kitchen before eventually training to become a Haemodialysis Technician and later a tutor/lecturer/social researcher having completed my PHD in Education. I enjoyed looking after elderly folk as a nineteen year old Nurse Aid and I took pride in doing a good job. I had regular hours, overtime, holiday and sick pay. I was not a ‘worker’, I was a Nurse Aid. Now workers in the elderly care sector (carers) can expect to be running from home to another for minimal hours and rates of pay.

The notion of the ‘worker’ is a dehumanising label and I am constantly surprised that professionals so readily employ it as part of their workplace terminology including those prominent in the area of industrial relations. The Australian maxim used to be ‘fair pay for a fair day’s work’ memorialised in the Harvester Decision of 1906. It was intended that earning would cover the cost of living. Now, we have working poor. Is this what is has come down to? Have we conceded to the conflict between the ‘haves’ and the have nots that Marx spoke about? In other words, do we accept that more and more people are going to become worker bees – to serve the interests of the invisible oligarchs who control financial markets and just about everything else – and have we fallen for this? If so, this is not good. Society is worse off than ever.

We used to know people by their vocation. It seems to be just about having a job now – whatever that means. With high tech mimicking human activity what will people do in the future? What does this mean for identity? Will we become a leisure society and be defined by our leisure activity? I jolly well hope not. Humans must have a purpose and that is to do meaningful and fulfilling activities for which they are appropriately paid.

Language is supposed to serve us not demean through simplification of meaning and purpose. Marx saw change for the better coming out of class revolution. I can see why.