Marxism At Work: Shift Work Explained

Submitted by AWL on 17 June, 2015 - 12:50

Our bodies have evolved so that we're awake by day and asleep at night. The brain’s ‘circadian clock’ monitors light levels and releases a chemical, melatonin, to prompt us to sleep when it’s dark; it releases other chemicals that keep us awake during the day.

This gives our bodies their 'circadian rhythm', which affects temperature, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure.

In the rail industry, many of us work shifts: outside regular 9 to 5 hours, especially nights, early starts and late finishes. In doing this, we're defying our natural rhythm and incurring the risk of health problems. We’re also depriving ourselves of sleep; shift workers get around two to three hours’ less sleep a night than other workers.

Research shows that shift work is associated with an increased risk of heart problems, digestive complaints, type two diabetes and some forms of cancer. Studies suggest that shift work is associated with increased mortality risk, i.e. we die younger!

A brief Marxist history of shift work.

Some forms of shift work can be traced back to Roman times. But shift work took off during the industrial revolution when capitalists invested a lot of money in factory machinery to increase productivity.

They didn't want their investments standing idle at night! As Marx puts it in Capital, time in which machinery 'lies fallow represents a useless advance for the capitalists'. Capitalists got round this problem by developing the shift system: different groups of workers to keep their machinery going by day and by night.

This history of shift work tells us something about how bosses view and use workers in the capitalist system. It shows us how the hours that our bosses buy from us for wages are just a means of keeping their machinery moving, creating value and producing profit. To the capitalists, our energy is like fuel to burn in the production process. We know that in sweatshops in Bangladesh today, just as in 19th Century Britain, bosses will make workers keep working until they die from exhaustion. That is the capitalists' view on the value and the purpose of human life.

This explains why, knowing the unhealthy and life-shortening effects of shift work, our bosses do very little to promote our health and well-being. They do the legal minimum, such as giving us 12 hours' rest between shifts. We have organised and fought for other improvements, such as the 35 hour week on many Train Operating Companies. But it's a constant battle: our right to a healthy life vs. their fight to keep the railway running on as few staff as possible.

We've got to keep the fight up!

Our trade union and socialist movement can challenge management’s domination and theft of our lives through shift work, starting with:

  • An early retirement with a pension to enjoy life! If shift work means we’ll die younger than other workers, we should retire younger. We’re entitled to a life after work, especially as so much of our working life is compromised by shifts in the first place.
  • Many, many more staff. If we must do unhealthy shifts, we should do as few as possible. We need to renew the call for a shorter working week with no loss of pay, accompanied by the call for recruiting more staff. One night shift a month, with a week off either side, wouldn't be too bad!
  • Workers’ control. One of the greatest sources of shift work stress is our lack of control over when we get our rest periods with the resulting loss of family and social life. We should be able to work less, but also control when we work too.
  • On the level of wider social transformation, shift work would be hugely reduced if production was motivated by need instead of profit. A socialist, democratically-planned society would alleviate many of the requirements for shift work. We wouldn't need workers in Starbucks at 5.30am to sell coffee to railway workers who are on their way to drive trains so that thousands of workers in banking, marketing and other socially useless industries can commute to their pointless jobs every day.
    We could all have a lie in!
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