Rethinking labor and laborer, employed and unemployed

Labor is not just physical work conducted by humans. It's a phenomenon, an interaction that regulates the whole universal system. Likewise, there is nothing called unemployed or unemployed. Everyone is employed. But not all get a chance to conduct economic labor.

Photo: UNICEF Nepal

Ananta Aryal

  • Read Time 4 min.

Normally we assume the wage earner as a ‘laborer’. The wage-earner may be from lower positioned daily wage earner to higher chaired or managerial positioned employee. Laborers generally exchange their muscle and intellectual power with money or goods. Cambridge dictionary defines labor as ‘practical work, especially when it involves hard physical effort’, ‘to do hard physical work’, and ‘to do something slowly with great physical or mental effort’. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as ‘work for which someone is paid’. The economic definition of labor deals with the amount of physical, mental, and social effort used to produce goods and services. 

Beyond humans 

Mostly, we take laborers only as humans but this is a narrow understanding of the term. All animals are applying physical as well as mental abilities for their survival. For example, a military dog applies its ability of good sniff capacity to catch criminals. A horse as well as a donkey lifts the weight. The difference is humans exchange their labor for money or economic goods, while animals do not. Likewise, all the living things including plants are conducting the labor interaction for their survival. Thus all living things conduct labor for their survival. Plant, for example, takes water and minerals from its roots and carbon dioxide from leaves. Then with sunlight, it prepares food. In this way, it performs labor to survive. 

Non-living things also conduct labor interaction. Take the water formation process. Hydrogen and oxygen were two different gasses before the creation of water. In interaction with these two gasses, the water makes its existence in nature. If water has to survive, hydrogen and oxygen must conduct labor. If hydrogen gas itself has to survive, its constituent particles—proton and electron—must continue their labor interaction.

Our solar system is in balance due to the gravitational interaction of each other. If one of the parties within the system stops conducting labor, the entire system might cease to exist.

Thus labor is not just physical work conducted by humans. It’s a phenomenon, an interaction that regulates the whole universal system where living as well as non-living particles are its actors.

Employed vs unemployed

We label people as employed and unemployed but this distinction is artificial if you look at how human beings conduct labor before they are even born, you will find this distinction artificial.

A human being itself is a product of labor phenomena. It has to cross uncountable series of labor interactions to reach the position of unemployment. Everyone thinks that an unemployed person does not have any work to do. In fact, an unemployed person does lots of multi-dimensional labor interactions.

As a matter of fact, labor interaction takes place from the moment of conception. A sexual relationship between parents is labor interaction. Another labor interaction with the ovum results in the conception of a child. The first two weeks of its interaction are for the germinal process. The third week to the eighth week is for the embryonic development process. The labor interaction between the embryo and nutrients results in the development of a neural tube which will later develop into the central nervous system including the spinal cord and brain. In the interaction from the ninth week to birth, the embryo becomes a fetus. The fetus has to revolt for birth. Actually, the birth of a child is a product of its strong labor interaction during fetal development. After the birth, again it has to conduct a multi-dimensional labor interaction for existence and survival. It has to labor with the natural environment first—breathing, seeing, hearing, crying, physical motion, eating, digestion among others. A man is involved in psychological and social interactions throughout his life. During the process, he conducts uncountable labor interactions with uncountable conditions, products and results.

We label people as employed and unemployed but this distinction is artificial if you look at how human beings conduct labor before they are even born, you will find this distinction artificial.

During the multi-dimensional interactions, some get a chance to conduct economic labor interactions and we call them employed persons. During economic labor interactions, humans could exchange their muscle as well as intellectual ability for cash or economic goods. Some may not be able to interact with economic dimensions and they are labeled as unemployed.

Ours is a complete economic and materialistic age. To survive, every human must conduct economic labor interaction which is known as employment or job. Those who get a chance to conduct economic labor can survive easily for they have less exposure to psycho-social abuse or harassment or existential threats. If they face such threats then there are advocates and defending partners like unions, families and societies. Family and society play a supportive positive role to defend the employed people for economic labor regulates the society.

Those who fail to engage in economic activities are known as unemployed but they have to conduct more labor interactions with various factors of society as well as the environment. They do not find support from their family and colleagues. Long-term economic non-labor could lead one to the interactions between uncountable demotivating social and psychological dimensions that could lead to depression or even death. Family, society, and the whole nation give existence-related threats to those in economic non-labor.

But in reality, the unemployed (economic non-labor) have to conduct more labor interactions than the employed for their survival.

In this sense, we can say that there is nothing called unemployed or unemployed. Everyone is employed. But not all get a chance to conduct economic labor.

The economic labor (employed person) will always dominate the economic-non labor (unemployed person). The family and society will always be in favor of economic labor. If we see the issues of labor and laborers from this perspective, we can see how artificial our discriminatory attitude is in terms of understanding the employed and unemployed people.

Ananta Aryal is pursuing a Master’s degree in Labor Studies at Tribhuvan University.

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