How not to frame “workers”
Oct 26, 2011 – Today’s Telegraph front page provides an example of the socially-dominant “worker” frame. The headline contains the first clue: “Give firms freedom to sack their slackers”. (This is the “finding” of a “report” commissioned by David Cameron – see update*). The Telegraph explains:
‘Under current regulations, workers are allowed to “coast along” and employers are left fearful of expanding because new staff may prove “unknown quantities” who are impossible to sack, the report says.’
Here’s the frame in a nutshell:
- “Free market” means firms are free to manage their own resources.
- Resources are acquired and disposed of – in a way which minimises costs, maximises “efficiency”, etc.
- Labour is just another resource (as in “labour market”).
“Workers are resources”
Hidden by this metaphorical frame is the human experience of working in a job, and the distinction between meaningful activity and dehumanising work (not to mention work which physically harms). Orthodox economics of both right and left “treat labor as a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials, and speak in the same terms of its cost and supply” (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). Workers’ rights movements have fought against exploitation of workers (with some important successes) but have tended to implicitly accept this economic framing.
Work “ethic” plus
Linked to the “labour as resource” metaphor – in a sort of unholy neural coupling – is the moral framing of work which comes from religious traditions, most notably from the Protestant (or, rather, Puritan) Work Ethic. You don’t have to consciously subscribe to these religious beliefs to be affected – moral guilt over “laziness” seems to affect practically everyone in our society (but not in all societies – the framing isn’t universal).
And thus we arrive at these strange notions:
- Work is morally virtuous regardless of the experience of the worker.
- Firms should be “free” to make this experience even worse.
And so (to cut a very long historical story short) we get the news frames of guilty “slackers” merged with market fundamentalism. And, to many, it looks just like “common sense”. Meanwhile, metaphorical terms such “flexible labour” (or worse, “cheap labour”) hide the reality of human degradation.
The Independent reveals that the author of the “report” (multi-millionaire venture capitalist, Adrian Beecroft) has interests which include “an online company offering payday loans at huge rates of interest”. The Independent quotes “Lib Dem sources” who called Beecroft an “ideological” figure: “He is a private individual who has produced a report not based on any evidence.”
Yet another case of someone with the “right” ideological views producing a Mickey Mouse “report” which becomes front-page news. For further examples, see my earlier piece on the so-called TaxPayers’ Alliance.