The sounds that come to mind when we think of ‘ labour’ are clicks on a spreadsheet, the clang of tools, the beeps of a dishwasher that is ready to unload, or the notorious twang of an alert from one of the countless work Whatsapp groups we might belong to. In sum, when we think of labour, we tend to think of activities that are performed in exchange for a wage.
The sound of chatter isn’t commonly associated with labour. If anything, it remains associated with anything but work, it is the mascot of idleness. But activities involving talking, like consoling a grieving friend, parenting, doing the school run for your grandchildren, or just being there for a loved one do in fact take up our time and our energy and provide what is effectively an essential service. These activities are collectively known as emotional labour: a form of care work that is largely unwaged, and typically confined to the private realm.
Emotional labour is often disregarded as ‘labour’ because many conceptualise caregiving activities as voluntary acts we do out of good will or leisure. In fact, the English idiom ‘the labour of love’, frames emotional labour as somewhat trivial. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as work that is done because one ‘enjoys’ it rather than because one receives a wage or praise for it, or even because it is necessary. Emotional labour is thus invisible. But I believe that it must be considered equally significant as the labour we perform in the public realm. And that isn’t as simple as unionising Mumsnet users.
If emotional labour isn’t performed, the consequences upon our mental and physical health would be grave. The state doesn’t allocate us a reliable friend to confide in: it’s up to our own peers to fill this role. Our lives would lack the meaning we get from close social bonds, be they family, friends, or lovers. Emotional labour gives our lives epistemic value and is instrumental to upholding our individual wellbeing. By precluding it from the political discourse, we ignore the fact that the state of our mental health, our relationships with those around us and the fight against loneliness affect our welfare just as much as our ability to pay the bills.
If we fail to address emotional labour, we ignore a key component of gendered experience. As academic Eva Kittay notes, emotional labour is stratified largely by gender, as well as race and class. Being socially positioned as the most ‘available’ caregivers in gendered society, women disproportionately perform emotional labour. For many women, particularly those with dependants, emotional labour hugely restricts their choices. With the workplace still being governed according to norms designed by men, many women must still make the choice between parenting – or looking after dependants – and full-time work. In the UK, paternity leave still remains at just two weeks. The majority of carers in the UK also happen to be women: 58 per cent of UK carers are female. But due to the effectively voluntary nature of this work, the state does not recognise it as a service it needs to intervene with beyond monetary compensation.
The establishment of Sure Start children’s centres in 1998 started to address this ‘dual burden’ on women with dependants. The attack on this project under the coalition government came at the expense of women lacking family relations or the means to pay for childcare to look after their children. Instead of offering real support for women who want to balance both their work and their caring roles, we are told that ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ is the gateway to women’s emancipation.
As feminist academic Nancy Fraser has argued, this has led to predominantly white, middle-class women transferring duties of care to younger women from less privileged backgrounds rather than sharing them with their partners, in order to create time for career progression. The women upon whom they rely take on low-paid work as nannies or au-pairs. Thus the breaking of the glass ceiling is rarely possible without the commodification of the emotional labour that these women might otherwise have had to perform. Where the money doesn’t stretch far enough to pay for childcare, it is often grandparents who are recruited to perform emotional labour. They perform a second round of parenting during years supposedly earmarked for ‘retirement’.
By ignoring the salience of emotional labour, we deny women equal opportunity to pursue their own lifestyle choices, and reserve that choice to women who rely on others less privileged than themselves to conduct care work on their behalf.
To stop sustaining class and gendered exploitation, we must therefore distribute emotional labour equally across society This would be an imaginative way to capture frustration with the neglect of emotional labour in mainstream politics that women across all party colours feel. Emotional labour is often perceived as a trivial, ‘agony aunt’ issue that has no place in political discourse. Yet many of us – from single mothers and teachers in underfunded schools, to young carers- engage in ‘dependency work’ that involves performing emotional labour with no monetary compensation. Emotional labour lies at the heart of the politics that people live through each and every day: it is the politics of the home, a place where Boris Johnson hiding in fridges and debates around Brexit matter much less than we think.
To make Labour a party of government again, the new leader must think rigorously about how it can convince voters it is both relevant and trustworthy. I believe that making the ‘invisible hand’ of emotional labour visible is a good place to begin.
To integrate emotional labour into its policies, Labour can start with three core objectives:
- First, the Labour party should account for those who perform exploited emotional labour.
- Second, Labour should not assume that each of us has a family that will, inevitably, cater to our emotional needs.
- Finally, we need to integrate compassion into our education, and fight against gendered norms that exempt men from performing emotional labour, as well as the normalisation of vitriol and hate on social media and in the tabloid press.
It’s time Labour lightened the burden of the world’s agony aunts to become a voice not just for waged labourers but for emotional labourers too.