The commodified worker: the consumption of social hierarchies in the workplace by Peyton Bond

Winner of the 2022 SAANZ Student Blog Writing Competition

The enigmatic concept of a work/life balance seems to exist only on the shelves of self-help books, an untenable reality that appears unlikely to change (particularly as we continue to ask barely literate toddlers what they want to be when they grow up). While we can plainly situate ourselves as consumers on the socioeconomic food chain, the ways in which we are consumed – that is, our purportedly separate ‘life’ consumed into ‘work’ – are less visible to us. We know that our time is consumed, for instance, and we know that we should think of work less and of life more. We know that a certain class becomes wealthy from our labour, and the mechanisms they use to consume that wealth have been sketched a hundred times over (or more – Marx has been cited almost half a million times on Google Scholar).

We are also aware of the social hierarchies that guide our world, and the understandings of the power structures and intersections underlying those hierarchies grow more each day (Anthias, 2013; Magee & Galinsky, 2008; Saguy & Rees, 2021). What is understood less explicitly, perhaps, are the manners in which our positions on the hierarchies are themselves consumed, commodified, and reproduced in the workplace. Though the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 prohibits employers to refuse or fail to hire you based on discrimination, what the Acts do not forbid is the ability of employers to make use of the very traits they are technically bound to ignore.

The concept of the modern ‘commodified worker’ appeared in my 2020 interviews with indoor sex workers in Aotearoa New Zealand. The interviews asked broad questions about how sex workers experienced their workplace (whether it be managed or private). Sex workers whose body and self fit within what participants named as ‘high end’ – that is, thin and white and middle-class – typically both made more money and had an easier time of moving between workplaces. Kitty explains:

I would just go to places, and most places would turn me down. They would be like sorry, but we don’t take girls over a size 12. Sorry, we don’t take girls over a size 8 […] Lots of places just don’t hire plus size women at all […] I would work at whatever place would take me (Kitty).

In sex work, this phenomenon may be more tangible and visible, as well as more wrapped up in perceptions of (Western) erotic capital (Brooks, 2010; Hakim, 2010). Outside of sex work, however, the packaging of prejudice to produce labourers is more subtle – and is not limited to jobs with pointed expectations around appearance. Rather, the neoliberal workplace makes use of all that they can consume of the worker, resulting in a particular subjectivity of the ‘commodified worker’ – a worker whose body, class, race, education, personality, looks, tone, and more are used, shaped, and reproduced to extract both product (whether tangible or affective) and worker as product. That is not to say that the workers themselves are being sold as products per se – I avoid that assumption particularly in a discussion on sex work – but rather that to sell services, the worker must precisely embody the product at hand. The phenomenon of worker as an embodiment of product is created in part by the neoliberal shift to implicit self-governing rather than explicit state-governing. If we imagine each workplace as a mini-state, the concept becomes clearer: worker-citizens are bound not just by unambiguous laws, but by the bounds of their very selves, as they have been chosen (or not chosen) for qualities that now operate to restrain the worker as they labour within the confines of their most socially assigned selves – or as they are shut out of a labour market that they simultaneously must enter to survive.

There are important implications of commodifying the totality of the worker on both agency and discrimination, but I wish to highlight here the insidious impacts on work/life balance. As workers are chosen for their socially assigned selves – their intersecting positions on social hierarchies – the maintenance of work boundaries becomes increasingly difficult, or even impossible. As employers continue to mine workers for all that they are (while paying them only for the skills the job names as required), workers careen towards burnout. The commodification of all that the worker can be is a role stress that consumes not only the ‘role’ of the worker in their workplace, but the very role of their most comprehensive social assignation. Further, as persons are not chosen as workers because of their perceived position on social hierarchies, here too are issues: the discriminatory hiring results in less opportunity for movement and choice of workplace as well as decreased or absent income. The existence of a work/life balance becomes even further fallacy – to survive (and to thrive), the state demands we work (Mascini, Achterberg, & Houtman, 2013). Without work in the picture, the ‘life’ part of the balance becomes especially difficult to maintain.

Workplaces continue to capitalise on workers as tools of branding, commodity, and embodied product and workers’ rights and power steadily erodes, while entrenched neoliberal norms force a work-to-live mentality and reality. Without considering alternative approaches to both labour and life – such as the reasonable utopia Weeks (2011) names in her seminal text on antiwork politics and postwork imaginaries – the situation will surely only worsen.

Petyon Bond is a PhD Candidate at The University of Otago – Te Whare Wānanga o Ōtākou.

Works Cited
Anthias, F. (2013). Hierarchies of social location, class and intersectionality: Towards a translocational frame. International sociology, 28(1), 121-138.
Brooks, S. (2010). Unequal desires: Race and erotic capital in the stripping industry: Suny Press.
Hakim, C. (2010). Erotic capital. European sociological review, 26(5), 499-518.
Magee, J. C., & Galinsky, A. D. (2008). 8 social hierarchy: The self‐reinforcing nature of power and status. Academy of Management annals, 2(1), 351-398.
Mascini, P., Achterberg, P., & Houtman, D. (2013). Neoliberalism and work-related risks: Individual or collective responsibilization? Journal of Risk Research, 16(10), 1209-1224.
Pausé, C., & Palmer, K. (2021). Weight and the law in New Zealand. Fat Studies, 10(2), 172-183.
Saguy, A. C., & Rees, M. E. (2021). Gender, power, and harassment: Sociology in the# MeToo era. Annual review of sociology, 47, 417-435.
Weeks, K. (2011). The problem with work: Feminism, Marxism, antiwork politics, and postwork imaginaries: Duke University Press.