“There is no better means of inducing stupefaction than a period of factory work.” These words of Engels’ ring true to every person who has ever been brought under the whip of the instruments of labour. ( The Condition of the Working Class in England)
In a modern car factory, there is a mix of both manufacture and machinofacture. At times the worker is still in control of his tools, while in other instances he is subordinate to the movements of these instruments of labour, but even where the worker controls his tools, he remains tied to the production line or track, that lifeless entity that drives production. This mix is found in most modern, large-scale production that takes place in Britain, but in the car factories that the sentence of monotony sits especially heavy on the shoulders of the workers.
The intensification of labour has reached a hiatus point at the Peugeot car plant at Ryton, Coventry. On 23 April, 850 jobs were lost through voluntary redundancy and early retirement. It is significant that 1,450 employees applied for these 850 losses! In fact, redundant workers were so happy to leave the backbreaking tedium that they conga’d out of the factory, in spite of the scarcity of other work available in the Midlands.
There is just one reason to explain why so many people wanted to leave: the plant has become an intolerable place to work.
Until the 23rd, Peugeot operated three shifts at the plant, A, B and C. Shifts A and B worked Monday-Thursday whilst the C shift kept production going from Friday to Sunday (and occasionally Monday). The A shift would work ‘earlies’ whilst B would work ‘lates’, swapping each week. C shift kept to a single pattern: the early shift began at 6.00am and finished at 4.15pm; without stopping the track, the late shifters would take over at 4.15pm and work through until 1.20am or, in most cases, 2.30am. The different finish times relate to what ‘pattern’ Peugeot deems appropriate. The patterns are for normal production, moderate or full. All these varied finish times have been agreed in ‘consultation’ with the joint shop stewards and union officials. The company is only required to give one week’s notice to increase the finish time of the late shift by 1.5 hours, or to order the workers of A and B to undertake compulsory Friday overtime, 7.00pm until midnight. On average, the weekday workers do 10.25 hours a day over four days. The C shift workers were subject to even more draconian working times. Working Friday to Sunday, 6.00am until 7.00pm, it was soon reported in the local press that workers were falling asleep in their dinner break.
These long, cruel hours are only in place so as to generate a massive profit for Peugeot. Marx revealed long ago that the worker produces enough value to pay back his wages in just a small portion of his working day. This portion of his shift Marx called ‘necessary labour’. The rest is ‘surplus labour’, ie, all value created is pocketed by the capitalist. This is the source of all profit and the secret of the vast wealth of the capitalist class. Driven by the desire to maximise profit, the capitalist forces the workers to labour for longer hours. At Peugeot, four hours’ work on the production line produces in excess of 160 cars, so we can see just how much the capitalist gets for free. Excessive hours like those at Peugeot are but one method the capitalist uses to extort profit from the work force. The profit (surplus value) can also be created without lengthening the working day.
Peugeot is a good example of how more profit can be made through surplus labour time without extending the working day. The instruments of labour, the conditions of work and a reduction in breaks have all played a major part in recent years. Every single job on the track has been scientifically timed. Every minute has been broken down into 100 mini-seconds and every operation, from picking up a drill to changing a battery, has been timed. Through this method, the workforce have been pushed to the absolute limits of endurance. Most jobs inside the factory are calculated to be directly adding value to the car for 57 minutes of every hour. That means that just three minutes an hour are used for changing batteries, walking to the next car, or anything deemed ‘non-direct’ to the production of the vehicle. Many workers do not have time to blow their noses, let alone go to the toilet.
Under capitalism, robots and computerisation, instead of lightening the load, have only made it harder for the workers. Their jobs are now even more dull, monotonous and generally depressing for the labourer. Rates of suicide and divorce at the factory have been rising steadily for some time. “The dull routine of ceaseless drudgery and toil, in which the same mechanical process is incessantly repeated, resembles the torment of Sisyphus – the toil, like the rock, recoils perpetually upon the wearied operative.” (Karl Marx, Capital, p451)
The workers are so occupied by the trivial minding and mending of their equipment and process that their minds have very little opportunity to wander. Instead, stress and anguish are piled one on top of the other for a remarkably long period of time. In the first six hours of a shift, a mere 20 minutes are given for breaks; breaks which must be used for visiting the toilets. There are no quiet periods, no slow moments, no let-ups or stops. The machines keep running, as does the track, and, every hour, 42 cars roll off the production line. Through improving the techniques and processes of production and by reducing break times, ‘relative surplus value’ is increased. That simply means that by making the worker labour more intensively, the capitalist reduces the proportion of the working day spent reproducing the value of his wages and therefore increases the proportion spent creating surplus value or profit.
Using these two methods, increasing the absolute surplus value (by increasing the working day) and increasing relative surplus value (by increasing the intensity of labour), the capitalist continues to extract from the workers more profit. Whichever way it’s done, it is detrimental to our health and well being, both physical and mental. In the proposed new working arrangements to be adopted at Ryton now that the C shift have gone, Peugeot has announced the new five day a week shifts on earlies (four days on lates) will be without a dinner break and each ‘tea’ (toilet) break will be just eight minutes long!
The unions, brothers and sisters, are in ‘consultation’.
Engels Quote: The Condition of the working class in england, page.192 (penguin ‘classics’ edition) chp. ‘Single branches of industry. Factory hands.’
Marx Sisypus quote!: Capital, page 451 (everyman library edtion (cedar paul translation)) chp. ‘large scale industry’