Labor day and night
As we celebrate Labor Day, it is an opportune time to reflect on how the notion of the “day” itself has greatly expanded in recent years. Across the globe, the diffusion of corporate and business processes has rendered time zones irrelevant, and this breakdown is felt so much more in countries like the Philippines that have to adjust to the time zones of their counterparts in the global North.
Night shifts (or “graveyard shifts”) have been around for a long time, a prerequisite to the functioning of modern society. I would like to think that while most of us are dreaming, there are vigilant police, firefighters and security guards that ensure that we keep doing so. In hospitals, nurses and doctors watch over their patients, ready to attend to emergencies. Across long and short distances, pilots and drivers traverse the skies and roads to bring their passengers to their destinations. By the time the sun rises, supplies would have been delivered, streets would have been cleaned, stores would have been prepared to accept customers. The city is ready for a new day.
It is estimated that by 2016, there would be 1.3 million call center agents in the Philippines, and many of them would be working at night, helping give rise to a nocturnal economy of convenience stores and restaurants, street vendors, and taxi and jeepney drivers, among many others. This is happening not just in Metro Manila but also in the rapidly-growing commercial centers in Cebu, Iloilo, Baguio and others. Many of them would be working at night. Generations ago, it would have been difficult to find a restaurant open beyond 9 p.m. in some of these places. But the modern, globalized city never sleeps.
There are medical and social issues involved, to which we have to be attentive. Studies in India and the Philippines have documented the unique occupational hazards faced by call center agents, pointing to psychosocial problems like anxiety and medical conditions like hypertension and obesity. Humans do have biological clocks, and working at night does have health consequences. This is compounded by the risks brought about by drinks and substances—such as coffee and energy drinks—that workers take to keep themselves awake.
Underlying the importance of staying awake is the reality that in some occupations, falling asleep can lead to losing one’s job (as in the case of security guards) or losing one’s life (as in the case of taxi or truck drivers). It is no accident that most vehicular accidents happen in the “unholy” hours.
Social issues, on the other hand, relate to the reconfigurations of families and relationships around people’s work schedules, which could be both restricting and liberating. Economic independence, as well as an enabling social and physical environment, especially at night, creates venues and opportunities for encounters, both casual and intimate, that are associated with risky behaviors, such as alcohol use and unprotected sex, both of which have been documented by studies. Superimposed with the growing HIV/AIDS cases in the Philippines, these should be a cause for grave concern. However, rather than lead to stigmatization and stereotyping, these studies should make us look at the environment that engenders these risks and how we can reduce them through education and harm-reduction measures.
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I had my own share of working at night as a doctor-in-training at the Philippine General Hospital, where we had to go on 24-hour duties, from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. the following day. Most of us welcomed the challenge, and adapted our bodies and minds accordingly. Often, the adrenaline rush in the emergency room kept us awake. But there were moments of difficulty when I had to tell myself: Just think that you are staying awake to keep people alive.
Reflecting on these experiences, I guess there is a similar logic at work in others’ life worlds: for the good. It can be a public good—as in the case of police officers and doctors—or a private good. Oftentimes, it’s both: staying awake to earn a living; staying awake to keep their and their families’ hopes alive.
Finding work wherever it can be found has always been our strength as a nation—be it abroad, be it at night. To build on my earlier call to action, rather than judge these phenomena as socially detrimental—or, on the other hand, rather than dismiss them as inevitable—we must seek to mitigate the medical and social harms that this new nighttime ecology has engendered. The availability of healthy foods, comfortable places to rest, and more flexible hours are just some examples. These should be framed in the broader context of workers’ rights in a competitive environment where these rights are often set aside in the name of profit. Tellingly, in some BPO companies, employees are contractually prohibited from joining labor unions. In recent years, lawmakers have called for a “Magna Carta for Call Center Workers.” We need measures like this if we are to be a society that values its workers.
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The MRT trains are usually full, but they get especially crowded just before 10 p.m., when many would begin their eight-hour night shifts. For many of us, the day is about to end, but for them, it is just about to begin. For many of us, it is time to sleep, for them it is time to stay awake.
Whatever their aspirations are, whomever they are working for, those who labor at night carry a dignity that deserve our respect and support. At the end of their toil, may the sun shine brightly.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.
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