Monday, April 7, 2014

A Reflection on Service Labor

 Much ink has been spilled by sundry theorists, commentators, and pundits on the question of service work, the service sector, and how they differ from 'traditional' working class occupations. Here, drawing from my own experiences laboring in service positions combined with the classical education that the ruling class foolishly permitted me access to, I will attempt to elucidate the character of service work with an eye towards helping those who seek to organize workers in the service sector. Though I have no expertise in organizing myself, I hope that my observations can assist those that do.

Part of the theoretical problem in analyzing service labor is identifying its product. Industrial products, those whose production and transport are facilitated by 'traditional' workers, are self-evident: electronics, raw materials, etc. But what, for example, does a “Customer Service Associate” produce?

Training materials for customer service workers often use the phrase “point of contact [between company and customer]” to describe the general role of service workers. Being the point of contact between a company and its customers entails maintaining an enthusiastic and sunny disposition or “positive attitude” at all times, apologizing profusely for any difficulty, and even maintaining the “emotional relationship” between the customer and the company; some training materials even contain instruction in basic psychology to facilitate the latter. Great emphasis is placed on sincerely “believing in” the company- in one case I was even told that, while on the clock, “you are the company.” Simply showing up on time and working hard is not enough. In a sense, a customer service representative is expected to become an avatar of sorts for her/his employer. The product of service labor, then, is a particular 'self' in line with the needs of the employer.

The second difficulty is more practical, and has to do with the character of service work. While each individual customer interaction is (generally) not very taxing, performing service labor for hours at a time is incredibly draining, much in the same way that adding long strings of numbers would be. One's thoughts are not one's own; there is no mental 'space' left over while performing the task to think about anything else. The work is, consequently, extremely stressful, inhibiting most service workers' ability and desire to engage socially or intellectually with each other or anyone else in a meaningful way.

Equally important is the erosion of self-worth inherent in service labor. While workers in all industries have a general awareness of their servile position, in the service sector, passivity and servility are infused into the very fabric of the work. Customers must always be addressed with an honorific, while “associates” use the diminutive form of their first name, which is often displayed upon a prominent name tag. While it may seem a trivial thing, in my experience, the mere presence of a company uniform and name tag creates a great imbalance of social power. Customers are apt to begin speaking to a worker without preamble, even a simple 'excuse me', as would be appropriate in any other setting; they initiate physical contact (usually a condescending pat on the shoulder) that would be highly inappropriate between social equals; they are also quick to resort to rudeness if a worker is not quick enough to satisfy their desires. The expectation of complete submission from 'customer service representatives' is so great that a customer once insisted to me that I was required “by law” to provide her with my first name. When met with such rudeness, and even outright verbal abuse, workers must be unfailingly polite. One training program I attended exhorted workers to “explain that [we were] only trying to provide excellent customer service” when confronted with a hostile customer, even if said customer was a thief! Being sincerely upbeat and positive at all times is imperative; what a worker might be feeling in reality is irrelevant. “If you're not feeling happy that day, just fake it” one company trainer told me, “Customer service is the most important thing.”

Tellingly, while service workers may like or dislike their employers depending on working conditions and managers' personalities (note that 'foremen' do not exist in the service sector; these employees are referred to as 'department managers' or 'team leaders' and are generally considered part of management), virtually all of them detest customers. Particularly well-liked managers can even be seen as allies against abusive customers. This is an important point to remember in organizing efforts. Keep in mind, too, that these are the experiences of a white male. Women, people of color, and other oppressed groups experience more intense alienation of the form described above, as well as facing additional work pressures related to their oppressed status.

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