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Unskilled Work?

by Mediocre Dave / August 25, 2020

Image: The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet, 1857

Bad New Times | Essays  }
Making claims for better pay or greater respect through skill is dangerous. Celebrating people’s aptitude for work that exploits them is a misplaced form of solidarity. 1854 words / 8 min read

Brexit, coronavirus, and a mounting economic crisis have caused people to question what work sustains the economy, who it is performed by, and how it is organised. One of the most contested issues is the categorisation of ‘skilled’, ‘unskilled’, and ‘low-skilled’ workers, and the political consequences of how we use these terms. With the rallying cry ‘low-paid not low-skilled’, people on the left are rejecting this concept; the term ‘low-skilled’ is seen as disrespectful, a bourgeois slur on the dignity of working people, and so correcting this use of language has become, for many, an urgent form of solidarity.

For some, this is a moral defence; to be a skilled worker is a virtuous thing, and workers deserve to have their virtue recognised. For others, it is strategic; skilled workers enjoy better employment prospects and greater social prestige, and so asserting the skill of workers is hoped to be a way to gain leverage in advocating for their interests. Whether sincerely or strategically, both of these approaches buy into and perpetuate the idea that workers’ rights, pay, and wellbeing should be determined by their level of professional skill. Most people on the left would not admit to the belief that respect and solidarity should be contingent on skill, but it nonetheless seems to structure claims of this sort. These arguments set out to defend workers’ interests by elevating the status of their work but they ultimately make it harder to criticise the workings of an economy that forces people into low-skilled jobs. Celebrating people’s aptitude for work that exploits them is a misplaced form of solidarity.

Celebrating people’s aptitude for work that exploits them is a misplaced form of solidarity.

A more compelling argument is that, in reality, all work requires some degree of skill and ignoring or undermining this is itself a form of denigration. There is, therefore, no such thing as ‘unskilled’ or ‘low-skilled’ work. This view still risks implying that to be regarded as unskilled is somehow disreputable, but it also succeeds in its mission to unsettle assumptions and raise critical questions about the status of skill in work.

One thing that Brexit has brought to mainstream attention is that the hierarchical categorisation of workers on the basis of skill is baked into the UK’s immigration system. Parliament is in the process of passing the government’s Immigration Bill which will end EU freedom of movement and pave the way for the forthcoming points based immigration system which makes a key distinction between ‘skilled’ and ‘low-skilled’ workers. Whereas the outgoing system regards any job that requires a university degree as skilled, the new system will lower the threshold to include A Levels or equivalent. While the government’s immigration system is generally designed to make it harder to enter the country (subjecting EU workers to the same restrictions as non-EU workers), the redefinition of what ‘skilled’ labour is seems like an attempt to maintain populist anti-immigrant rhetoric while also recognising that certain low-paid workers who would previously have been considered ‘low-skilled’ are useful for the economy and therefore must be eligible for employment.

The government’s definitions of ‘skilled’ and ‘low-skilled’ work, then, are clearly superficial and motivated by political expediency. So, what is the actual relationship between skill and the labour market?

Average Skill

All purposeful human activity requires some degree of skill, either rooted in formally learned knowledge or tacit experience. And, the experience gained from doing something repeatedly or for a long period of time will generally make you more effective and efficient at it. In this abstract sense, it is true to say that all workers are skilled.

However, it is also true to say that there are a lot of jobs which only require the skills that an average jobseeker can be expected either to have or to be able to gain on the job in a short amount of time with little training or instruction. When workers are put into competition with each other on the labour market, these basic capabilities do not distinguish them as ‘skilled’. So, all jobs require workers to have certain skills, but many jobs assume, quite correctly, that any worker will be able to do them.

The basic skills expected of an average worker are specific to their historical moment. Once upon a time, the abilities to touch type or handle a digital file management system were considered specialist skills. Now, these are things which can be expected from the average worker. Other skills, such as the ability to handle horses, have gone from being a common expectation of labourers across industries to being highly specialised.

Not everyone will be able to satisfy the expectations placed on the ‘average’ worker, but the labour market is not designed to include everyone. Marta Russell argues that the idea of a ‘standard’ worker who is available for capitalist employment without the need for specific accommodations is key to defining disability — ‘“Disability” is a social creation which defines who is offered a job and who is not’. The exclusion of certain people from work both creates the category ‘disabled’ and defines the basic expectations placed on all remaining workers. Championing the skill of the average worker is similarly exclusionary.

There are jobs which require specific caring, affective, and interpersonal skills. As with other lines of work, not having these skills would be a barrier to employment. And yet these jobs, which are highly gendered and racialised, are widely not recognised as skilled (including even by employers) precisely because these skills are attributed to the essential nature of the worker — the assumption that women, and in particular women of colour, are natural caregivers goes hand in hand with the assumption that they are not capable of skilled work. On top of this, the aspects of care work which are recognised as ‘skilled’ by employers are not the care itself but the ability to perform it under employment conditions; to administer to those receiving care as quickly as possible, to manage emotions so that they do not interfere with the performance of work duties, and to always satisfy the requirements of the job. The aspects of care work we might wish to recognise and praise because they demonstrate compassion, sensitivity, patience, and emotional investment are not the aspects which mark the job out as skilled (or not) in a capitalist economy.

Exploitation

It is right to say that even in the context of ‘low-skilled’ work, experience and capability play a role. Take for example one of the crucial jobs that employers are desperately struggling to recruit for in the wake of Brexit and coronavirus: fruit picking.

Pickers tend to be paid a piece rate; that is, rather than being paid a set amount of money for each hour they work, they are paid according to how much fruit they pick. So, if you’re paid 88p per box, and you fill 10 boxes in an hour, you get paid £8.80. This means that you are motivated to push yourself to work as hard as possible. With every worker feeling the same motivation, the average expectation of what a worker should be able to achieve constantly goes up, which keeps pay rates low. And, the lower the pay rate, the harder workers must force themselves to work. For these reasons, Marx wrote that ‘the piece-wage is the form of wage most appropriate to the capitalist mode of production’ — it most efficiently forces workers to self-exploit.1

However, under current conditions, the piece-rate does not get rid of the worker’s entitlement to the minimum wage, which is paid as an hourly rate. So, if you only fill nine boxes in an hour you only earn £7.92, which drops you below the National Living Wage (for people aged 25 or over) of £8.72. The employer is legally required to top up the difference, giving you an extra 80p for which they have received no fruit. Unsurprisingly, employers hate this, and the National Farmers Union, the association of agricultural employers in the UK, has advocated suspending the minimum wage for their workers in order to keep labour costs down.2 If inexperienced pickers (such as students, furloughed labourers, and laid off workers) are sent out into the fields to take the place of the usual migrant workforce, productivity is expected to drop. How good individuals are at picking fruit clearly has immediate economic implications.

Describing labour as ‘skilled’ puts a positive spin on it which implies that the worker has meaningful control over their work. A less positive word would be ‘disciplined’.

Describing this labour as ‘skilled’ puts a positive spin on it which implies that the worker has some extra power or authority, or has meaningful control over their work. A less positive word would be ‘disciplined’. The more desperate workers are for wages, the better they are forced to become at picking fruit. The skill that these workers have is not simply picking fruit, it is picking fruit in a way that maximises their bosses’ profits. For low-wage workers, whether paid a piece-rate or by the hour, ‘skill’ is a euphemism for exploitation.

Deskilling

Generally, skilled workers are harder to replace, either due to high levels of demand or low levels of supply. This means that they are in a stronger position to command better pay, conditions, and job security. This is why throughout its history capitalist industry has tended towards ‘deskilling’. Through technological automation and reorganising how work is done, employers have found ways to replace highly skilled craftspeople with low-skilled labourers. In fact, a major criticism of capitalist industry is that over the course of its history it has taken control of work processes out of the hands of workers, disempowering an ever larger portion of the population by consigning them to low-skilled work. While it is tempting to assume that an ‘essential’ job must be a ‘skilled’ job, capitalist society is always making itself more and more dependent on low-skilled labour.

Denying that there is such a thing as low-skilled work makes it harder to describe and criticise the exploitation of labour. It is clearly true that the terms ‘low-skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ are frequently used in derogatory ways, but this hateful usage does not mean they can necessarily be abandoned. The capitalist economy relies on people doing exploitative work that is mentally exhausting, physically degrading, and which leaves them living in poverty. This situation cannot be combated by arguing that these people are really good at their jobs. Low-skilled work is not a capitalist myth, it is a very real tool for capitalist exploitation. ‘Low-skilled’ is not only a degrading term; it is an accurate description of a degrading situation.


  1. Karl Marx. [1867]. 1976. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: Volume I London: Penguin. p. 698. 

  2. In an interview with the BBC’s Farming Today (31 March 2020), NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said that the NFU views minimum wage entitlement as ‘a bit of a problem; it goes against the principles of piece rate’. He continued: ‘We need some sort of creativity around a piece rate which means that some people unfortunately may fall below the living wage’. 


Author:

Mediocre Dave