By Julie B
I accidentally stumbled upon the BBC 2 mini-series Babies at Work last week. I was shocked by what I beheld: the possible future dystopian lives of working class women.
The mini-series tracks a UK workplace experiment spearheaded by Addison Lee, one of the largest taxi firms, worth £200 million. The experiment is based on a workplace initiative brought over from America, the nature of it being to invite workers with caring responsibilities to bring their babies to work.
As the group who gets lumbered with society’s caring and domestic work, it will not shock you that it is invariably women who choose to do this, and women that are mostly featured on the show.
There are many worrying issues arising from this concept that need unpicking.
It would be no bad thing if parents and carers had the option to take their young children to work with them, provided that there was a separate crèche in the workplace that was free. Nevertheless, they should have the option to choose a nursery that is not in their workplace as they might enjoy having some time to themselves; after all, socialist feminists would agree the workload associated with caring should be shared in our society.
Free accessible nursery care has been a key rallying point and demand of the women’s movement for years. This demand was made way back by women involved in the Russian Revolution for example.
However, the experiment did not involve a free nursery; women were bringing their young children of all ages (two months to two years old) to work and plonking them down beside their desk or on their lap whilst either answering the phones in the call centre, or working from a computer.
This initiative by Addison Lee was an exercise to see just how much they could exploit these women. This is not a benign offering because they are concerned about women’s burden of parenting – as the series and management tried to propagate throughout – it’s a cost cutting and profit expanding exercise that benefits the bosses.
The boss of Addison Lee said the experiment was to get as much ‘value’ as possible out of the workers. It is a retention exercise as training adds to the cost of each worker. He said that lots of women drop out of work when they are pregnant (some don’t return to work as they legitimately want to bring their children up or they cannot afford or find suitable childcare). This drop out costs the business.
Addison Lee are capitalising on the fact that state benefits are very low and not enough to look after a baby very comfortably. One 23 year old woman, Thelma, said her state benefit was only £128 a week and she could not afford childcare or much else with it. So, Addison Lee judged that by dangling the carrot of mildly better pay in front of their women staff, will see them back at work even when their babies are incredibly young.
It is quite possible that Thelma is some kind of contract worker who doesn’t get full rights to paid maternity leave from the company; otherwise she wouldn’t only be on the state benefit. She bought her baby back to work at two months old. How about Addison Lee stops scrimping and actually pays their workers properly?
In the last year there have been many cuts to nurseries across the country and continual rises in cost. In this way, Addison Lee’s initiative is almost encouraging the state to continue not providing childcare, and leaving it to “the market”; the workplace will offer to a new economic safe-house to poor exploitable women with young babies.
This initiative is incredibly problematic for several reasons.
The first is the triple burden that this places on women. Not only are women now workers in the public sphere and carers in the private, but they will be a part of the capitalists’ idea to coalesce the two, to see women working and caring in the workplace simultaneously. The pressure that this laid on the women in the series was palpable. Not to mention the fact that the rest of the workers end up chipping in with the caring too, whether they liked it or not
A corporate office is not an inspiring, comfortable environment for the children and it seemed that the parents and carers could not give them the attention or care they needed. A child psychologist said that if a child spends two days at the office it will not be detrimental. That’s not what’s on the table here however
As women began the experiment they said the initiative was a great thing as they felt they don’t get to spend enough time with their children and feel guilty. It was interesting to see that it was mostly the women working in the upper echelons of the company that gave this reason. It was mostly the poorer call centre workers that cited the extreme cost of childcare. This initiative clearly arouses feminist, but mainly, class issues and should be fought along both those lines.
It is sad to see that the economic and caring responsibility situation has got so bad for working women under capitalism that a solution as horrifying as, ‘bring your baby to work and stick it under your desk for eight hours whilst juggling caring and working simultaneously,’ has become a welcomed and appreciated concept.
This cannot be allowed to happen; feminist and trade union activists must rally against this. Where will this new idea end? On the programme there was talk of how this initiative could create a situation of not, ‘life versus work,’ but enmeshing the two. Although as socialists we say that the division of the private and public sphere is a fundamentally negative thing, the logical extension of what Addsion Lee is trying to achieve, is to see workers spend more and more time at work having no time to spend on themselves, to grow as an individual in a sphere separate from work.
Socialist feminists can provide the answers and ideas for all the troubles working women face, and ways of organising to achieve them, in the short and long term. These include: the notion of free and accessible childcare, decent maternity leave pay for all workers on any type of contract, decent state benefits, less hours in the working week and so on. It seems that we now need to counter this new capitalist initiative in a big way, arguing and organising for our socialist alternative.
Finally, it must be noted that after the pilot scheme Addison Lee decided to make their workplace ‘baby friendly’ by deciding to let women have babies at their desks up until the age of 1 year old. As the toddlers were disrupting the office and substantially reducing the workers’ productivity they decided to introduce a workplace crèche.
It will be interesting to address this a year from now to see how the nursery is used and who by; if they start to introduce some kind of fees, or not? Either way, not offering childcare for the babies makes their intentions pretty clear, all of which has previously been stated in this article.
Perhaps some might say this initiative seemingly offers mild benefits to the women in some ways, as the capitalist system and the issue of child care is so terrible, but it also places an even more mountainous burden on the poorest women. Worrying.