An overly-commodified view of work

Rather oddly for the anti-commodification think-tank the Australia Institute, their latest paper, Something for Nothing – Unpaid Overtime in Australia, takes an over-commodified view of paid work.

Authors Richard Denniss and Josh Fear seem baffled by unpaid overtime. ‘It is not immediately obvious,’ they say, ‘why people would choose to work additional hours when they could earn just as much by working less…’. They offer some speculation on worker-employer power balances, social pressure from colleagues, and work addiction.

But their own survey shows that only 12% of people who regularly work unpaid overtime think their jobs would be at risk if they did not work extra hours, and only 9% think that their colleagues would disapprove. By far the largest number, nearly two-thirds, say ‘the work would not get done’.

People working in a political think-tank, of all places, should have realised that many workers have commitments to their job that goes beyond the money they are paid and indeed their particular employer. They can also be motivated by commitments to a cause, to clients (health and education professionals often put the interests of students and patients ahead of going home at 5pm on the dot), and to projects or goals of various kinds.

What people do is often as important as getting every last dollar for it. In the Australian component of the 2005 World Values Survey, a question on job motivation found that more people rated having a job that gave them a sense of accomplishment (33%) as their first priority in a job than a ‘good income’ (29%). In the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, 15% of respondents regarded a high income as very important in a job, less than helping other people (24%), having job that is useful to society (26%), or having an interesting job (50%).

Though labour is a commodity, it is not just a commodity. It is about more than money. That is one reason why we should oppose Denniss and Fear’s proposal to regulate work time. While some people may be pleased to be sent home, for others it would be an attack on their right to engage in activites they see as meaningful and important.

7 thoughts on “An overly-commodified view of work

  1. I would like to see how the answers to these surveys break down across different income levels and professions. Do the people who attach more importance to a sense of accomplishment than to a good income already occupy comfortable income positions?

    And while I wholeheartedly agree (and suspect that Denniss and Frear would, too) that:

    Though labour is a commodity, it is not just a commodity. It is about more than money.

    having large numbers of people say they do unpaid overtime because otherwise

    the work would not get done

    is not a sign of a healthy work situation. It could easily signify that the people feel themselves to be in a kind of rat race where if they don’t stay on top of the workload then the workload will bury them.


  2. Alan – On a quick check, the relationship with occupation is stronger than the relationship with income. About half of professionals rate accomplishment number one, compared to about a quarter of manual workers and drudge office workers. Accomplishment does not automatically increase with income, though it is highest among those earning $115K+.

    Long hours are most common among people with most control of their hours, managers and professionals. The distinctive feature of these occupations is that they are typically paid to perform a role or task with substantial self-direction. Often the amount of time the job will take is very difficult to calculate since the tasks are not routine. Often employers do not monitor how many hours these workers spend in the office.

    ‘Unpaid overtime’ is a bit misleading, in the sense that professionals and managers are typically paid much higher incomes than other workers on the expectation that they will get the job done. I have been in my current jobs for nearly 10 years and I don’t even know what the official office hours are, since I don’t see them as relevant to what I am supposed to do.


  3. Andrew I think you are right. In quite a lot of jobs you are paid to get a task done or manage an area.

    Lots of jobs really aren’t clock watching paid by the hour. Lots of jobs are feast/famine situations where there are deadlines and they have to be met and hopefully you can take it a bit easier when there is a quiet patch (often said quiet patch doesn’t occur until the next recession/downturn).


  4. It seems a bit inconsistent to suggest that a reason for ‘unpaid’ overtime is a power imbalance between workers and employers when the workers who do most unpaid overtime are high-income male professionals. I also wonder if the survey results are reliable if ‘getting the job done’ is the main driver for unpaid overtime while at the same time a large minority of respondents claimed that unpaid overtime was ‘not expected, but also not discouraged’. These people might have taken a fairly narrow view of what is meant by’not expected’. I suspect many of them would not have got to their positions if they openly stated at the start of every job interview that they would only work 9-5 without being paid extra. High-income professions only get to where they are by working hard and being committed to getting the job done. I think it makes more sense to take the view that overtime by salaried professionals is not actually unpaid, but part of a voluntary arrangement.


  5. These two threads can be combined: an important function of a university is to help students understand what the phrase ‘the art of living’ means. It doesn’t mean work,work,work.


  6. I wonder how much “overtime” is actually jobs where there aren’t really fixed hours as such but an understanding between employer and employee (and reflected in the pay) that getting the work done is the important thing and that this may, on times, require working longer than the ostensible number of hours in the contract.

    I’m sure that many contracts have an “may be required to work longer than the specified hours” clause, especially if the pay is higher than it might otherwise be.


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