Notes on Invisible and Unpaid Labor 

I regularly think about invisible labor and unpaid labor–it’s everywhere. 

For invisible labor: We don’t see the people who empty our office trash cans. We don’t know the people who pick our fruits and vegetables and who deliver them to our local stores. What if grocery stores had a picture of who picked our fruit on the packaging? On the opposite side, invisible labor also applies to whatever it is CEOs do and other people who make enough money for life in 2019! 

For unpaid labor: The vast majority of professors in the United States are not paid for office hours, for planning, for grading, for answering emails, for attending meetings, or for mentoring: They are only paid for the 45 or so hours in the classroom face-to-face with students. Such unpaid labor, totaling in the thousands of hours per year per professor, often goes unacknowledged or unnoticed by the institution despite its importance and partial visibility to students.  

An example I recently learned about is “aesthetic labor” (see, Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World). Have you considered the time and the cost–the invisible and unpaid labor–society generally expects of people who have a job? People are expected to uphold certain grooming standards. Women are generally expected to shave any visible hair other than hair on their head (excluding the face) and to wear conventional makeup. Frequently, employers also require a certain type of clothing–be it very casual or very formal, very fitted or otherwise. All of this is invisible and unpaid labor expected by companies and/or customers. Employers want their subjects to appear “pleasing” to customers. Body type/shape is policed at some businesses, as well. 

And then there is “emotional labor” as another important type of invisible and unpaid work. This is relevant in all jobs. People have bad days. A boss psychologically abuses them. A customer (or patient, or student) physically attacks them. Work–whether good or bad, whether fun or stressful–takes emotional tolls on people. Don’t you feel bad for the people who do road and bridge construction? They are directly in the middle of exhaust from hundreds and thousands of vehicles, as are workers at fast food establishments who take your order face-to-face in the drive-thru. People have their de-stressing techniques. Such emotional labor might include seeing a professional therapist, taking a hot bubble bath, or talking to loved ones. And don’t forget the therapists and educators who are vulnerable to Secondary Traumatic Stress from caring about and listening to the difficulties other people face. 

As much as people can, people need to demand visibility and demand compensation. 

What labor do you perform that is invisible to others? What types of invisible labor do you know about? What labor do you perform for which you are not paid (and should be paid!)? How might businesses incorporate invisible labor into their employees’ paychecks?

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda