I watch cycle-van pullers sweating as they drag along huge loads in the blazing sun, and I watch government clerks lounging away in cool dark offices, I hear of schoolteachers chattering away in class about ‘interesting’ episodes from their personal lives and also of tycoons who spend their time drinking champagne and playing golf when they are not clinching hugely lucrative deals in five-star environs. ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ was the rousing rallying cry of the communists since the mid 19th century: partly through their efforts and partly through historical circumstances which they could not have predicted, the lot of the average blue collar worker, at least in the organized sector, at least in reasonably developed countries such as India – leave alone Germany or the US or the UK, where they talk of a ‘labour aristocracy’ – is far better than anyone could have dreamed around 1900 C.E. But looking at people working, or pretending to work, I have wondered ever since teenage: how many of these can be called workers in any meaningful sense?
Both make-work and finding elaborate ways to shirk work are so deep rooted in the human psyche, you see. I myself allow for a very broad definition of ‘worker’, much broader than traditional communists, who could only think of peasants and ill-paid, overworked factory workers when they first defined their beloved proletariat. I can consider a top flight surgeon to satisfy my definition – as long as he does his work well – and equally a housewife who does all the household chores all by herself every day. A teacher who really has to teach instead of fooling and boring and browbeating his wards for a living is a worker, too, and so is a shopkeeper, though much of his work might consist only of fighting off boredom when there are no customers, and keeping fit despite his totally sedentary occupation. The engineer who has to rush at all hours to attend emergencies at the power plant is a worker indeed; so also the sculptor hammering away at his statue, or the scientist keeping a sharp eye on a bacterial culture in his laboratory for months on end. But when you watch a bank clerk taking half an hour to do a little thing that should take five minutes, even as he chats away with his colleagues and is rude to the client who dares complain, yet gets paid 30- or 40,000 rupees a month for it, can you call him a worker? What about the man who keeps running away from the workplace to ferry his kids to and from tuitions, and is never hauled up by his boss for it? Can most PhD scholars honestly assuage their conscience with the thought that they are doing some useful work?
Then there are sinecures – from ATM attendants to the President of India – well paid or not, they do get paid (some, even after retirement) for doing virtually nothing, or nothing of any importance. And of course, bureaucracy at all levels is a byword for inventing work: the more the papers, the fatter the files (which go unattended for years on end) the more important they look, the bigger their budgetary allocations grow, the more the perks they can claim for themselves! I still don’t know whether fashion designers and models do any work by the traditional definition of the word. The same goes for a lot of currently ‘in’ professions that I shall not name here…
In a world where work was much more rigidly defined, and Tolstoy’s dictum of ‘He who does not work shall not eat’ was sternly enforced, how many housewives and headmasters, CEOs and celebrities and secretaries to the government might go abegging!