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

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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4 replies

  1. I became aware of the invisible people who take care of the needy at food banks. Texas seems to be divided up into regional main food banks which distribute food to local agencies, which are generally called “food banks,” too. The regional food banks do a variety of things, like take in donations and redistribute to the local food banks, supply non-food items, fund-raise, and even grow food in local “gardens.” They direct an army of volunteers to do this work. I am amazed and pleased at the large number of young people involved with it. Most are in their 20s. They could have gone to Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin and gotten some decently well-paid jobs. But that would mean leaving families behind from 8-16 hours drive away. Instead they work at jobs earning well below $30,000 per year and donate time to these food banks. I strongly suspect that most have no jobs because of the daytime hours they put into these regional centers. Usually there are only seniors staffing local food banks.

    One slightly older worker runs one of these local food banks. He has owned and run several businesses previously and even told me that he went bankrupt on his first business that he created while still in high school. He has earned millions of dollars from some of them, but his local food bank is his heart-run business today. He has program to provide food for kids, and to serve lunch to anyone over 55 every weekday.

    I also learned recently that one of the benefits to those who go to food banks for the past 2 years has come from the trade war with China. The government (probably federal and not state agencies) has bought up from farmers a lot of the produce normally sold to China and sent it to the regional food banks to be given away in weekly produce distributions at some local food banks. These regional food banks also box up the boxed and canned food in federal storage into individual allotments for each family of senior citizens each month.

    But running food distribution can be tough if you can’t find a volunteer to take a truck to pick up the produce from the regional food bank. This has been true for one local food agency (run by Catholic Charities). That has happened this year several times. This means that the pickings are pretty slim despite the fact that it has allotted you $40/mo to “spend” there. This charity is very popular because you get to pick what you want instead of take what they give to you that other agencies have chosen to do. Catholic Charities is the exception to the rule of staffing with mostly elderly.

    Then there are all those fund-raisers who work to raise funds for these “projects” and the staff at grocery stores who set up bins for donations from customers once or twice a year.

    One of the men living at my apartment building is a person I would call “extremely resourceful.” He has told me of the many types of services he got for free in the past at local charitable organizations and churches (like gas for his car, free turkeys/hams at Thanksgiving, free coat, hat, gloves and shoes each year, help with rent/utilities/transportation). He now complains that some have ruined it for the needy because of changes in rules. He told me that some of the people getting the food would then sell the food they got on the street. I have not seen this. But he then told me that some people who have moved to this city robbed people leaving the food banks with their food. (Many walk to these centers). So many of these charitable organizations/ churches have cut back on what they do for the needy.

    Then there are other invisible people I know. One of the elderly, Chano, not only picks up packets of the lunches served at one agency, but also the federal commodity boxes to take to disabled elderly who cannot get to this agency. He also gives rides to a few who live too far away (the city has changed the bus route to not pass by this agency). Besides, the federal commodity box is usually about 40 lb and bus drivers will not help you get that box up and down those steep steps. He runs errands every weekday for other elderly and earns money for playing in a jazz band every weekend. And he won’t take money for gas! A genuine treasure! Thanks to all the Chanos I don’t know as well.

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  2. I never knew what “bearing others’ burdens” was called. Now I do–Secondary Traumatic Stress. Profs and all teachers are highly susceptible to this, and often it becomes overwhelming, leading to being almost unable to function or exhibiting itself as a physical illness.

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