When I can, I work at home on Thursdays. From my desk in a downstairs room, I look onto the street. This view has fuelled my long held obsession with time and speed at work, and in particular with people whose jobs require them to run in order to finish their work to time.

Thursday is bin morning on my street. The rules are: bins out before 7; bins must be at the edge of the property, handles must point the prescribed way to help the loaders grab the bins and manoeuvre them quickly. I obey these rules to the letter, terrified that my bin will be deemed incorrectly placed and publicly rejected. I also sneakily watch the refuse workers on my street whenever I can. This is because their job demands that they run. Run really, really fast.

The bin loaders run down the street, collecting groups of bins together, loading the bins onto the bin wagon, putting bins back onto the road (in a lovely neat row. See image, plus weeds!), and running off – really fast – to the next group of bins. Their pace is set by the driver of the wagon who keeps his (it’s always been a he so far) vehicle moving all the time. This morning I passed as the loaders were heading to the next road. I think sprinting is the best description of their speed between streets.

Sociology has had a great deal to say about time and the control of work, drawing on other disciplines like history and economics too. We can look to EP Thompson’s (1967) seminal work on the introduction of ‘clock time’ into the workplace, with hours and minutes taking over the organization of work tasks rather than the task itself. Sociologists have explored the impact of ‘Taylorism’ and its time and motion studies on how work was organized and experienced in factories, including when the quest for time efficiencies was picked up by Henry Ford and introduced into his car plants via the moving assembly line. Sociologists have carried out some great research into how workers’ experience their work time (such as Miriam Glucksmann’s account of working on an assembly line in her book Women on the Line -first published under her pseudonym at the factory of Ruth Cavendish (1982)). Sociology has been fascinated with the speeding up of our working lives, and it has long asked crucial questions over whether our lives more generally are becoming more rushed or more leisurely (e.g. Veblen, 1963). And, of course, what role does profit accumulation play in any speed up?

Back to bins. My parents have lived in the same house for about 40 years now. They can’t get the wheelie bins out themselves anymore, so they have help from the local Council. So do many of those living along their street. Now, one of ‘the bin lads’ rushes ahead of the bin wagon to open the gates of those properties that are allowed help, to go and get the bins and place them out on the road. He puts the bins back after they are emptied, and closes the gates. Even with this weekly help, my mam and dad don’t know the names of any of the ‘lads’ anymore, not like they used to. ‘They are like whirlwinds these days’, my dad reports ‘in and out’. My parents still leave a tip each Christmas: a couple of pounds on top of the wheelie bin.

This all reminds me of a lovely study by Ian McIntosh and John Broderick. In a 1996 article they discussed what happened at work when Southburgh Borough Council contracted out its cleansing and refuse collections (in 1988). In particular, they detail the increased workload experienced by refuse collection workers and street cleaners. The refuse collection workers saw huge increases in the number of properties that they had to cover each day. McIntosh and Broderick note that the bin wagon now moved constantly in order to complete the routes in time. There was no time anymore for cups of tea from and with householders; no more biscuits, Christmas tips, chats and helping with odd jobs. Currently, Brendan Burchell is carrying out some great analysis of survey data to explore work intensification over the years and also in diverse societies. At the Work, Employment and Society conference in 2010, he reported that one of the questions he is most interested in is how much time we report having to work ‘at high speed’ in our jobs. I wonder what the bin loaders would report.

References

  1. Burchell, B.J. (2006) Work Intensification in the UK. In D. Perrons, C Fagan, L McDowell K Ray and K Ward (Eds) Gender divisions and working time in the new economy. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
  2. Cavendish, R. (1982) Women on the Line, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  3. McIntosh, I and Broderick, J. (1996) ‘Neither one thing nor the other’: compulsory competitive tendering and Southburgh Cleansing Services, Work, Employment and Society, 10, 3, 413-430.
  4. Thompson, E.P. (1967) ‘Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism’ Past and Present: a Journal of Scientific History, 38, pp.56-176.
  5. Veblen, T. (1963) The Theory of the Leisure Class, London: New English Library Limited (published originally in 1899).