ⓘ Manual labour


ⓘ Manual labour

Manual labour or manual work is physical work done by humans, in contrast to labour by machines and working animals. It is most literally work done with the hands and, by figurative extension, it is work done with any of the muscles and bones of the body. For most of human prehistory and history, manual labour and its close cousin, animal labour, have been the primary ways that physical work has been accomplished. Mechanisation and automation, which reduce the need for human and animal labour in production, have existed for centuries, but it was only starting in the 18th and 19th centuries that they began to significantly expand and to change human culture. To be implemented, they require that sufficient technology exist and that its capital costs be justified by the amount of future wages that they will obviate. Semi-automation is an alternative to worker displacement that combines human labour, automation, and computerization to leverage the advantages of both man and machine.

Although nearly any work can potentially have skill and intelligence applied to it, many jobs that mostly comprise manual labour - such as fruit and vegetable picking, manual materials handling for example, shelf stocking, manual digging, or manual assembly of parts - often may be done successfully if not masterfully by unskilled or semiskilled workers. Thus there is a partial but significant correlation between manual labour and unskilled or semiskilled workers. Based on economic and social conflict of interest, people may often distort that partial correlation into an exaggeration that equates manual labour with lack of skill; with lack of any potential to apply skill to a task or to develop skill in a worker; and with low social class. Throughout human existence the latter has involved a spectrum of variants, from slavery with stigmatisation of the slaves as "subhuman", to caste or caste-like systems, to subtler forms of inequality.

Economic competition often results in businesses trying to buy labour at the lowest possible cost for example, through offshoring or by employing foreign workers or to obviate it entirely through mechanisation and automation.


1. Relationship between low skill and low social class

For various reasons, there is a strong correlation between manual labour and unskilled or semiskilled workers, despite the fact that nearly any work can potentially have skill and intelligence applied to it. It has always been the case for humans that many workers begin their working lives lacking any special level of skill or experience. It has also always been the case that there was a large amount of manual labour to be done; and that much of it was simple enough to be successfully if not masterfully done by unskilled or semiskilled workers, which has meant that there have always been plenty of people with the potential to do it. These conditions have assured the correlations strength and persistence.

Throughout human prehistory and history, wherever social class systems have developed, the social status of manual labourers has, more often than not, been low, as most physical tasks were done by peasants, serfs, slaves, indentured servants, wage slaves, or domestic servants. For example, legal scholar L. Ali Khan analyses how the Greeks, Hindus, English, and Americans all created sophisticated social structures to outsource manual labour to distinct classes, castes, ethnicities, or races.

The phrase "hard labour" has even become a legal euphemism for penal labour, which is a custodial sentence during which the convict is not only confined but also put to manual work. Such work may be productive, as on a prison farm or in a prison kitchen, laundry, or library; may be completely unproductive, with the only purpose being the effect of the punishment on the convict; or somewhere in between.

There has always been a tendency among people of the higher gradations of social class to oversimplify the correlation between manual labour and lack of skill or need for skill into one of equivalence, leading to dubious exaggerations such as the notion that anyone who worked physically could be identified by that very fact as being unintelligent or unskilled, or that any task requiring physical work must by that very fact be simplistic and not worthy of analysis or of being done by anyone with intelligence or social rank. Given the human cognitive tendency toward rationalisation, it is natural enough that such grey areas partial correlations have often been warped into absolutes black and white thinking by people seeking to justify and perpetuate their social advantage.

Throughout human existence, but most especially since the Age of Enlightenment, there have been logically complementary efforts by intelligent workers to counteract these flawed oversimplifications. For example, the American and French Revolutions rejected notions of inherited social status, and the labour movements of the 19th and 20th centuries led to the formation of trade unions who enjoyed substantial collective bargaining power for a time. Such counteractive efforts have been all the more difficult because not all social status differences and wealth differences are unfair; meritocracy is a part of real life, just as rationalisation and unfairness are.

Social systems of every ideological persuasion, from Marxism to syndicalism to the American Dream, have attempted to achieve a successfully functioning classless society in which honest, productive manual labourers can have every bit of social status and power that honest, productive managers can have. Humans have not yet succeeded in instantiating any such utopia, but some social systems have been designed that go far enough toward the goal that hope yet remains for further improvement.

At its highest extreme, the rationalised distortion by economic elites produces cultures of slavery and complete racial subordination, such as slavery in ancient Greece and Rome; slavery in the United States which was defeated in 1865; or slavery under Nazism which was defeated in 1945. Concepts such as the Three-fifths compromise and the Untermensch defined slaves as less than human.

In the middle of the spectrum, such distortion may produce systems of fairly rigid class stratification, usually rationalised with fairly strong cultural norms of biologically inherited social inequality, such as feudalism; traditional forms of aristocracy and monarchy; colonialism; and caste systems. One interesting historical trend that is true of all of the systems above is that they began crumbling in the 20th century and have continued crumbling since. Todays forms of them are mostly greatly weakened compared to past generations versions.

At the lowest extreme, such distortion produces subtler forms of racism and de facto but not de jure inequality of opportunity. The more plausible the deniability, the easier the rationalisation and perpetuation. For example, as inequality of opportunity and racism grow smaller and subtler, their appearance may converge toward that of meritocracy, to the point that valid instances of each can be found extensively intermingled. At such areas of the spectrum, it becomes ever harder to justify efforts that use de jure methods to fight de facto imbalances such as affirmative action, because valid instances can be highlighted by all sides. On one side, the cry is ongoing oppression ignored or denied from above; on the other side, the cry is reverse discrimination; ample valid evidence exists for both cases, and the problem of its anecdotal nature leaves no clear policy advantage to either side.


1.1. Relationship between low skill and low social class Recognizing the potential for skill

Although manual labor is often stigmatized as lacking specific skills or intelligence, there are a variety of cognitive functions that it can require:

  • Innovation: manual labor is surprisingly creative and dynamic, involving using what is already known to create something entirely new and unique. Cosmetologists infuse their own ideas into their hairstyles, combining what is known about different hair types and methods of hair cutting with their personal tastes and experiences. Carpenters similarly emphasize craftsmanship in their work, attending to precision to ensure that the end products are aesthetically pleasing as well as structurally sound. Even welding is aesthetic, with individual welders considering their markings to be similar to artists tags.
  • Contextual application: manual laborers must know procedures and be able to implement them while also being flexible to work within specific parameters. For example, servers must not only know all the set procedures for taking orders and carrying food, but they must also be able to react and adapt to their changing environments, including the number of customers, specific requests, potential allergies, etc. Similarly, cosmetologists must know the properties and mechanics of cutting hair while also staying up to date on fashion trends and balancing what each customer wants with what the stylist believes is feasible. Other occupations such as carpentry, plumbing, and welding involve familiarity with tools and vocabulary as well as the ability to apply those skills to specific tasks, typically requiring problem solving and critical thinking.
  • Situational awareness and interpersonal skills: manual laborers must be aware of their surroundings and develop excellent spatial understanding as well as effective communication skills. As an example, servers have to multi-task and effectively manage their time between taking orders, obtaining the food from the kitchen, dealing with the receipts, and participating in small talk with the customers. Carpenters and plumbers also develop disciplined perception as well as sensory, kinesthetic, and cognitive abilities that are maximized even with limited physical space. Cosmetologists must learn to read their clients by listening to what styles they envision while also observing nonverbal cues about their likes and dislikes, and this often involves being personable and friendly.

A willingness to recognise that manual labour can involve skill and intelligence can take a variety of forms, depending on how it handles multifaceted questions of dignity and inequality.

  • An example of such systems is provided by well-run instances of professional sports teams, because there is a perennial meritocratic turnover of players, coaches, and staff, both within the sport and as input and output through its boundaries, whereby all participants have dignity even though all of the required talents may not exist in each individual.
  • In its healthier forms, it recognises the dignity and intelligence of blue-collar workers, and it recognises their civil and civic equality with white-collar workers. Yet it simultaneously leaves room in society for meritocracy, allowing both upward and downward social mobility as a sustainable meritocracy requires.
  • In its more pathological forms, it may only admit that there can be a science of manual labour, but not acknowledge or allow adequate social mobility both upward and downward between the blue-collar and white-collar classes. On the other hand, and equally pathologically, it may willfully deny the natural differences between individuals, allowing no hope for meritocratic justice, which is not only dispiriting to talented and hard-working people, but also highly injurious to macroeconomic performance.
  • An example of the first pathology is that the earliest forms of applying science to the practical processes of industry and commerce fell victim to an incomplete understanding, as exemplified by Frederick Winslow Taylors version of the "science of shoveling". Taylor correctly recognised that the physical athletic talents for shoveling on one hand and the mental talents for analyzing and synthesizing best shoveling techniques and workflows on the other often would not coexist in the same person. Some people would have only the first; others, only the second. Therefore, speaking metaphorically, players usually should not be their own coaches. Unfortunately, Taylor stepped from that valid realisation to envisioning a system of business administration that might easily have failed to filter people into the right roles based on their individual talents or lack thereof. Taylors versions of scientific management, had they succeeded in persisting, may well have eventually left some smart people stranded in an underclass crassly equated with draft animals, which was fashionable at the time at the same time that it let some incompetent but silver spooned people remain in positions of middle or senior management. Whether Taylor was capable of predicting and preventing that problem is unclear, but it is clear that not all of his imitators and admirers were thus capable.
  • An example of the second pathology are 20th-century variants of communism, such as Leninism and Stalinism.
  • Somewhere between the extremes of health and pathology mentioned above are the realities in most developed economies today, where various themes and tendencies are in constant competition, and people disagree on which ones predominate and what actions should be taken if any to try to even the balance or reduce the pathologies.

2. Formal learning and training

Formal learning scenarios, such as vocational classrooms, apprenticeships and academic studies, supply a theoretical approach to building skillsets. Learners acquire a systematic and procedural view of tasks, based on the specific parameters and needs of a jobs intended outcome. The parameters are defined by the purpose of the job and the tools used to achieve it. Hair styling, for example, requires learners to gain competence in the methods of shaping, cutting, washing, dying, combing, and various other active manual skills, the proficiency of which will determine the final product. In such situations, the learner is guided and directed by educators in their technique and form, and learn to interpret a tool’s use in meeting the requirements of a task or project based on the expectation of the result.


3. Informal learning and training

Informal learning can be summarized as any activity which concerns the pursuit of understanding, knowledge, or skill that occurs without an imposed curriculum and explicit assessment. It typically manifests itself as practical engagement in the pursuit of knowledge. There are several ways which informal learning is conducted, that range from self-directed learning, observational learning, where there is intention to seek specific information outside of formal environments, to the coincidental learning that comes out of experiences. Informal training differs from informal training in that it focuses on the acquisition of a skill, understanding, or job-specific knowledge. The cognitive skills acquired outside of formal learning environment also help to define the mastery of what are considered "blue collar" jobs. The understanding of technique and method taken from formal training is expanded on in developing contextual application, situational awareness, and innovation based skills. Informal learning provides workers with opportunities of cognitive development unique to their fields context.That knowledge of context, derived from past experiences in comparable situations, dictates the use of one technique or plan over another. Plumbing, as an example, requires knowledge of piping and the mechanics of water systems, but also relies on details such as house age, the materials from which the specific plumbing system is made, how those materials react given different external changes or alterations, and a comprehension of hypothetical conditions and the resulting behavior of the problem and other related components when said conditions are brought into effect. These skills and understandings are inherent in both learning processes. As a whole, this type of knowledge is more learner-centered and situational in response to the interests or needed application of the skill to a particular workforce.


4. Relationship to mechanisation and automation

Mechanisation and automation strive to reduce the amount of manual labour required for production. The motives for this reduction of effort may be to remove drudgery from peoples lives; to lower the unit cost of production; or, as mechanisation evolves into automation, to bring greater flexibility easier redesign, lower lead time to production. Mechanisation occurred first in tasks that required either little dexterity or at least a narrow repertoire of dextrous movements, such as providing motive force or tractive force ; digging, loading, and unloading bulk materials steam shovels, early loaders; or weaving uncomplicated cloth early looms. For example, Henry Ford described his efforts to mechanise agricultural tasks such as tillage as relieving drudgery by transferring physical burdens from human and animal bodies to iron and steel machinery. Automation helps to bring mechanisation to more complicated tasks that require finer dexterity, decision making based on visual input, and a wider variety of intelligent movements. Thus even tasks that once could not be successfully mechanised, such as shelf stocking or many kinds of fruit and vegetable picking, tend to undergo process redesign either formal or informal leading to ever smaller amounts of manual labour.


5. Relationship to offshoring, worker migration, penal labour, and military service

Many of the methods by which socioeconomically advantaged people have maintained a supply of cheap labour over the centuries are now either defunct or greatly curtailed. These include peasantry, serfdom, slavery, indentured servitude, wage slavery, and domestic servitude. But motives to get labour cheaply still remain. Today, although businesses can no longer get away with using de jure slavery, economic competition ensures that they will typically try to buy labour at the lowest possible cost or to reduce the need for it through mechanisation and automation. Various present-day methods of ensuring low labour costs are detailed below.

The first and most basic method is the domestic labour market within one country or region thereof, in which workers compete with each other for jobs. Within this market, further market segmentation is possible. Businesses try to avoid overtime when practical. They often try to avoid employing full-time employees FTEs in favor of part-time employees PTEs or contingent workers, or day labourers), all of which usually entail less obligation for employee benefits compensation beyond the wages themselves. Agencies tasked with enforcing labour law are supposed to be perennially on guard against the avidity with which employers find clever ways to make people function like FTEs but carry nominal labels as contractors, freelancers, or PTEs. Other avenues of discount labour are the institutions of apprenticeship and cooperative education including work-study programs, and relatedly the informal tradition of the "broke college student who works for peanuts". Here, the low wages are often credibly justified by the inexperience and incomplete training of the worker.

The domestic labour market may also extend beyond "normal" workers to various kinds of employing prisoners. Even military employment, most especially by conscription or other mandatory national service, is a means of employing labour at lowest cost compared to costlier alternatives such as all-volunteer militaries.

The next step beyond domestic labour markets within countries is the global labour market between countries, in which all workers on Earth compete with each other, albeit via imperfect competition. Differences between regions and countries in standard of living and relatedly prevailing wage rates provide a perennial incentive for businesses to send manual tasks to remote workers via offshoring or to bring remote workers to the manual tasks via immigration of foreign workers, whether illegal. These many benefits cannot accurately be pigeon-holed as all good or all bad. They are inevitably double-edged blades, and must be dynamically managed and monitored to keep them from leaving the healthy range of the spectrum and moving into pathological ranges. For that to succeed, there must also exist some decent level of employment opportunity, compensation, and psychological security in the private sector, especially non–defense community businesses.

Paramilitary, police, and corrections prison guard service are other segments of employment that reflect the traits of military service in this respect.


6. Bibliography

  • Taylor, Frederick Winslow 1911, The Principles of Scientific Management, New York, NY, USA and London, UK: Harper & Brothers, LCCN 11010339, OCLC 233134. Also available from Project Gutenberg.
  • Khan, Ali 2006-10-12, "The dignity of manual labor", Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Social Science Research Network, SSRN 936890.
  • Ford, Henry; Crowther, Samuel 1922, My Life and Work, Garden City, New York, USA: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc. Various republications, including ISBN 9781406500189. Original is public domain in U.S. Also available at Google Books.
  • Labour or labor may refer to: Labour childbirth the delivery of a baby Manual labour physical work done by people Wage labour a socioeconomic relationship
  • mustering of a particular military service. Members of labour corps often perform unskilled manual labour in fields such as construction, military engineering
  • Penal labour is a generic term for various kinds of unfree labour which prisoners are required to perform, typically manual labour The work may be light
  • consists primarily of low or unskilled jobs, whether they are blue - collar manual labour white - collar e.g. filing clerks or service industry e.g. waiters
  • Labour economics seeks to understand the functioning and dynamics of the markets for wage labour Labour is a commodity that supplied by labourers in exchange
  • or labour is another term for penal labour punishment combining imprisonment with arduous manual labor. Hard labor may also refer to: Manual labour physically
  • and can imply those involved in manual labour It may also mean all those who are available for work. Formal labour is any sort of employment that is
  • prizing instead manual labour as superior to and more authentic than mental labour This inverted the lessons insinuation of mental labour s being more
  • classified as manual scavenging in India, as the excreta is already partly treated and degraded in those pits. The International Labour Organization describes
  • assignments, so that wage labour is considered to apply only to unskilled, semi - skilled or manual labour The most common form of wage labour currently is ordinary
  • The New Zealand Labour Party Māori: Rōpū Reipa o Aotearoa or simply Labour Māori: Reipa is a centre - left political party in New Zealand. The party s
  • Worst Forms of Child Labour known in short as the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, was adopted by the International Labour Organization ILO in