The Global Staffroom: exploring COVID-19, social reproduction, and changing relationships to work

In April 2020, the University of Edinburgh Art Collection created a series of three commissions, inviting artists to reflect upon their personal experiences of COVID-19 and to respond to broader themes associated with the period of enforced physical distancing. 

Manual Labours have used the commission funds to further enhance an existing project, The Global Staffroom, and to enable the production of the fifth manual in their ongoing series. The Global Staffroom is a live podcast hosted by Manual Labours (Jenny Richards and Sophie Hope), involving conversations with people about what it feels like to care, be cared for, or not be able to care at work. Manual #5 will bring together the research and ideas born from the podcast and surrounding discussions, producing a long-lasting resource and set of activities which can be used in teaching and research. All podcast episodes will join the University’s Contemporary Art Research Collection (CARC) holdings in August 2020.

The CARC was initiated in 2015 and is a strand of the University Art Collection which takes Globalisation as its central theme, setting a specific focus on women’s experience and the contribution of feminist thought. It encompasses work across a broad range of media; moving image, print, performance documentation, and sculpture. 

The Global Staffroom stems from research into in the disappearance of collective and communal spaces for workers within the workplace, such as the staffroom, common room or worker club. The Global Staffroom hopes to propose an itinerant staffroom space of collectivity for isolated and individualised workers. In light of the current global health crisis, and limited debate concerning the inequality of those who are most affected by this crisis, Manual Labours hope this regular radio show will provide space to think carefully, critically and collectively about the intersectional impact that COVID-19 is having on changing physical and emotional relationships to work. They explore issues such as the gendered and racialised experiences of lockdown, sick pay, emotional labour of care and health workers, and the architecture of home-work.

The Global Staffroom seeks to build a conceptual common staff room for workers of the world that places social reproduction at the heart of how, what and where we work. 

We are all workers. Paid, unpaid, in the home, at the workplace, on site, at the office, on the commute, on the sofa, on social media, on benefits.

Social reproduction is the care and maintenance of life and what every form of life is dependent on to survive to the next day. It is often invisible, unpaid, or poorly paid.

The staff room can represent the time and space in-between work, or whilst at work, to rest, eat, love, exercise, cook, clean, play, read, do the crossword, regroup, nap, plot, plan, gossip. This time and space is needed in order to keep on working. It is the site for social reproduction.

Not everyone has a staff room. Maybe your bedroom is where you eat your lunch, or the local library is where you rest during work.

For those that have a staffroom, it might be inaccessible; it might reproduce exclusions based on hierarchies of gender, race and class.

Not everyone has official work colleagues. Maybe you work online, on the road. Maybe you have colleagues that you never get chance to speak to. 

There are multiple official and unofficial sites where social reproduction takes place (e.g. bedroom office, cigarette break, WhatsApp group or staff toilets). 

Spaces of social reproduction become extended sites of struggle crucial to the reproduction, maintenance and care of the worker. 

Supporting social reproduction at work has been capitalised and instrumentalised throughout history, from the factories of Bournville to the current dogma of wellbeing at work programmes, such as yoga during lunch breaks and massages at your desk. 

Not everyone performs all aspects of their social reproductive work. Some – who have the resources – outsource their social reproduction work to others.

Experiences of where, when and how social reproduction take place vary massively. The maintenance and care of workers is often reliant upon a whole body of invisibilised, precarious, racialized and gendered workers who clean your workplace or home, prepare your lunch, take care of your relatives, or welcome you to your gym.

The Global Staffroom hopes to bring together a transnational, often fragmentary workforce, who are intimately connected across material and labour relations but who are prevented from meeting and connecting. 

The Global Staffroom hopes to connect atomized, complaining bodies to explore unofficial aspects of self and collective care at work and where these might lead. 

The Global Staffroom hopes to be a supportive space where solidarities between workers can form beyond physical work environments. 

The Global Staffroom explores the structures of work and productivity in terms of broader economic and social structures which maintain consumer capitalism. 

The Global Staffroom investigates alternative co-operative structures which are underpinned by care and maintenance.

The Global Staffroom hopes to connect workers at different stages of the capitalist production line, including invisible labours of maintenance and infrastructures of care.

The Global Staffroom discusses the future of work and co-dependency between global workers in the context of both global warming and advances in AI.

The Global Staffroom hopes to connect with existing labour unions to provide time and space for members to share experiences and concerns with their social reproduction at work – ultimately creating connections and threads between wellbeing and illbeing and exploring the possibilities of collective complaints.

The Global Staffroom starts from a place of difference and values and acknowledges all types of experience.

The Global Staffroom launched on Monday 20 April, 12noon BST via Twitch.tv and has finished broadcasting for the summer. You can listen to all 14 episodes here.

Join the staffroom by clicking on the above links and listening in, or by emailing manual.labours@gmail.com. Learn more about Manual Labours on their website.

This entry was posted in intersectional feminism, intersectionality, labour movement. Bookmark the permalink.

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