Shadow work

I had to go on a one-day return trip to Cebu last Friday to fulfill a commitment to the Sentro ng Wikang Filipino of the University of the Philippines (UP).  I left my house in UP at 7 a.m. and made it to the domestic airport at 9.  Not bad at all, I was told.  I waited in the airport for one-and-a-half hours, but my flight wonderfully took off on time. Cebu is only an hour away by plane, and so by exactly 12 noon, I was already aboard a Cebu taxi, stuck in Manila-style traffic at the foot of the only bridge that links Mactan island to the city.

The event I was attending at the UP Cebu took  2 hours, while my speaking part consumed exactly 12 minutes.  As soon as the program ended, I was whisked into a van, together with other guests, to catch the 7 p.m. flight to Manila.  We were early, and we had to wait for 2 hours at the Mactan airport, but the whole point was to avoid the rushhour traffic.  On reaching Manila, I caught the tail-end of the Friday payday traffic.  But by 10 p.m., I was back in my house in Diliman.  I had spent exactly 12 hours traveling and waiting.

Because I live and work in the same place — the cool, wooded UP campus — I do not have a full appreciation of the daily life of the average Metro Manila commuter.  Commuting for me means a 15minute leisurely walk to school.  I dress up and get ready for work, quite often, just half an hour before I actually face my class.  I get to read the newspaper while having coffee, and I am able to go home for lunch.

In contrast, my daughter who works in Makati spends about 4 hours every day in a bus or an FX taxi. She is unfortunately allergic to gas fumes, and so to ward off nausea while traveling, she must breathe through a scented handkerchief and suck one lozenge after another for a good 4 hours every working day.  She munches a pandesal sandwich on her way to work, and she is able to come home for dinner only at around nine o’clock in the evening.   Lunch for her is a cold hamburger or warm food delivered to offices in plastic bags.

In his book, “Gender,” the author, Ivan Illich, invented the term “shadow work” precisely to designate the unrecognized and unpaid time we must spend preparatory to doing recognized or paid work.  All so-called “household” work, a euphemism for the unpaid toil of women, is shadow work.  Women, Illich argues, “are tied to more of it, they must spend more time on it, they have less opportunity to avoid it, its volume does not diminish when they take outside employment, and they are penalized more cruelly when they refuse to do it.”

But, shadow work is “not women’s exclusive domain.  It is as clearly genderless as wage labor.”  The time spent commuting to work is shadow work.  Illich cites some successful attempts to monetize it: “Some Austrian unions, following the lead of a Swedish union, obtained recognition by the employers that commuting was part of their empoyees’ work.  Commuting, they argued, is a burdensome task imposed on each worker.”  They won and got a raise.

With the worsening of the traffic in Metro Manila, there is a corresponding lengthening of the shadow work of commuting.  If such work were recognized and compensated, Illich says, “the industrial system would cease to function.”  For it will be shown that the sum total of shadow-work input will in fact be greater than wage labor itself. Even so, its recognition by society is a way of sensitizing us to the need to alleviate the ceaseless toil that is undertaken in the shadow of so-called productive work.   Some people are able to lighten the burden of shadow work, while others, like myself, are totally powerless to do anything about it.

Anticipating the long waiting and traveling, I filled my knapsack with books to read on my trip to Cebu.  There was indeed plenty of time to read, but I was able to open only one book and read a few pages, and only for a few minutes in the plane.  On the road, it was impossible to do anything else but watch the traffic and wonder whether I was ever going to get out of it.  At the airport, except maybe at the Mabuhay lounge, there was nothing I could sit on that would not numb my butt after just a few minutes.  Those fiberglass bench-chairs are among the most uncomfortable in the world.

You could listen to soothing music, my commuting friends tell me, or do work on your laptop computer.  I have tried both, but I must admit that even on long continental trips, I can hardly do anything I would consider productive or soothing.  Even sleeping becomes a chore for me in airplanes.

The few times I must go to Makati, I prepare for the journey by bringing some magazines that I can leaf through in traffic.  I make sure there is a notepad beside me on which to jot down some notes for a column, a show, or a lecture.  I have also tried listening to audio cassettes of books or plays.  This whole set-up, of course, is nothing more than an attempt to assure myself that I will not be wasting time. But, the truth is, I am simply unable to work or amuse myself while waiting.

The postmodern world will become more and more difficult to live in for people like me who structure their day so rigidly that they become unable to function when situations become unpredictable.  Traffic epitomizes this essential unpredictability.  As the road system is pushed to the limit of its carrying capacity, a minor accident or a stalled vehicle can, in a matter of a few minutes, create a horrendous traffic jam.

I envy those who are able to weave leisure into their shadow work, or to snatch a few moments of deep meditation from the shapeless zone of waiting.  For them, time is a free-flowing resource; it privileges no activity or any particular usage.  It is the only way to find happiness in the middle of traffic.


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