Prof. Crain’s New Book Explores Effects of Invisible Labor on Workers

A waitress at Hooters, a disabled worker in a sheltered workshop, a content moderator in a chat room: they’re all working like crazy and paying for the privilege, often without fully realizing it and much to the delight of their employers.

Each of the above cases are discussed in Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World (University of California Press, 2016), edited by Professor Marion Crain along with Winifred Poster and Miriam Cherry. The new book is a collection of essays by prominent sociologists and prestigious legal scholars who explain how and why such labor has been hidden from view.

“I’m fascinated by how we define work for purposes of the application of labor and employment laws,” said Crain, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law and vice provost of the university. “The distinction between work and other forms of activity that may well produce profits for firms turns out to be very slippery, and the issue has come to the courts in many different forms in recent years.”

The authors and editors have expanded the concept of invisible labor beyond the context of minimum wage jobs, housework, or the underground economy and show how it spans class and social hierarchy. Among those performing invisible labor are:

  • Wait staff at restaurant chains, such as Hooters, Shorty’s, or Twin Peaks – known as “breastaurants” – who must work to conform their bodies to a business model.
  • Unpaid interns, who hope that paid employment with the company will follow.
  • College students serving as brand ambassadors on campus.

Many forms of invisible labor are at this point unregulated. If the state and legal systems do not acknowledge the labor, it will not be addressed in policy and law, the Crain argues. “I am interested in how our relatively narrow understanding of work at law might shape employee rights assertion and working conditions,” Crain said.

In addition to editing the book, Crain contributed a chapter, titled “Consuming Work,” which explores consumptive labor and makes the case for understanding it as work. She uses Ralph Lauren, Starbucks, and Abercrombie and Fitch as examples of employers who actively seek young, often affluent workers. These workers want so much to be identified with the brand that they will not only accept lower wages, but will also buy and wear the company’s product (at a discount) as a term of employment.

“Employers who are able to deploy a prestigious brand to reframe work as entailing consumption of the firm’s brand (including the products, status, and experiences associated with it) can significantly reduce labor costs,” she writes.

“The rise of the corporate brand and its relationship to status and identity in modern society attracts youthful workers who place a higher value on affinity with the firm and its brand than they do on traditional compensation,” she continues. “Such an exchange may seem voluntary, but it has more subtle and insidious effects on identity and voice in a democratic society.”

The new book grew out of a seminar on Work, Time and Leisure that Crain taught with Robert Pollak, the Hernreich Distinguished Professor of Economics at Washington University’s Olin School of Business, and a colloquium on Invisible Work that she conceived in 2013 in her role as director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital.

Crain is an expert in labor and employment law, as well as feminist legal theory. She is the author, co-author, or editor of a labor law casebook, an employment law casebook, two university press books, and a commercial press book, as well as numerous law review articles and book chapters on labor and employment law, labor unionism, and the working poor.

Poster is an adjunct instructor the University College International Affairs program at Washington University. Cherry is professor of law at Saint Louis University. 

By Kathleen Nelson, Summer 2016