Nothing without Labour

Mayday meditations

What does it mean to commemorate a day that acknowledges the contributions of workers at a time when the prospect of displacement of workers by technological advances grows increasingly real?

In 2067, will we have a Robot Day, to acknowledge the contributions of our robotnik helpers, or will we celebrate Free-From-Labour day, when the notion of a post-work society would have materialised?

The struggle is post-real

The labour movement in Singapore had violent underpinnings; that there was a time classes of workers had to fight for their rights, postal workers, bus company workers, etc.

“From early April until the end of December 1955, Singapore witnessed a staggering 260 labour stoppages, walk-offs, go-slows and sit-downs — if we exclude Sundays, that means more than one labour protest every working day.” — Mark Ravinder Frost & YM Balasingamchow, Singapore: A Biography, p.361.

Huge contrast to today, where all the key institutions are in place for employee recourse, rights and entitlements are given, well-oiled matters of administration.

Today’s workaday disruptions are more like staplers running out of staples, the copier running out of paper, or it being too hot outside to go get a cup of soya bean milk (ok, these have all happened to me in over the past month).

The publicly visible struggles have turned into privately negotiated ones:

“Why do I/we work so hard?”

“Will I/we have job security?”

“Should I/we do something different?”

Singaporean paid workers worked an average of 45.5 hours a week in 2016 — we work pretty hard by global standards. Some of this love for work is unhealthy, irrational, but some of it is in-built into nature.

In principle technology’s purpose is to avail us of more time and resource, taking out the drudgery of automatable tasks to migrate us to higher value interactions, but it’s hard to change behaviour and decouple present tasks (even if ‘low value’) from a worker’s sense of worth. It’s like asking an old school secretary to change workflow, there’s pride in the manual, streamlined-over-the-years processes you know! Or a consultant not to use slides, what other form of object permanence would constitute value?

“Perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration, with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity,” wrote Derek Thompson in 2015 in The Atlantic

My junior college slogan was ‘nil sine labore’, which means nothing without labour; that is, nothing can be achieved. That used to be a bit of a joke, think downtrodden people in beige chao mugging all the time and not acting out their late teens the way late teens should, where the most subversive thing you could do was to skip a lecture.

The interesting provocation for now is, am I, are we nothing without labour?

Will robots be the mechanism by which we finally decouple identity from work, where work turns from drudgery into delight, from curse to cultivation? As Tim Keller frames the problem in Every Good Endeavour, we need an ‘alternative storyline of work’. Is the way things are going helping us get there faster? Is SkillsFuture really a prototype for universal basic income, Singapore style?

As for me, I think I really love work. Aiyah, everyday is a Happy Labour Day. 欢喜就好。Back to the grind tomorrow.