Wages for Commuting

Joni Cohen writes that workers should be paid for the time they spend travelling to work.

January 25, 2018 · 6 min read

Have you ever been sat on the train to work at seven in the morning and been struck by the utter injustice that your two hour daily commute, although solidly part of your “working day”, is not remunerated in the slightest? Not to mention the fact you have to pay for the privilege of getting to work in order to be exploited. But what if we got paid for our travel time and expenses? What if our employers had to pay for the privilege of bringing in labour from a distance, and this cost wasn’t foisted onto the individual worker?

In our current state of declining wages and working conditions, it seems pretty absurd to be thinking about forcing our employers to pay us for time when we aren’t even in the workplace. It even seems to go against the longstanding dictum of the workers’ movement: “fair wages for fair work”. But really, this demand is not without precedent. However, for this lesson we can’t simply look back to the halcyon days of social democracy. We have to cast our gaze back to the 15th Century, an age that Marx noted to be “the golden age of the English labourer in town and country.”  The population of Europe had recently been decimated by the Black Death plague – meaning that the working people were suddenly a scarce commodity. The proletariat and peasantry found themselves in a position of incredible bargaining power, and soon began to demand some of the highest wages, benefits and lowest work hours that workers have ever seen.

One of these many radical demands won was the viaticum: a provision of everything needed for a journey. Originating in ancient Rome, it consisted of a mode of transport (horses or oxen), food supplies and warm clothes, to be given to Roman officials when making journeys on state business. Silvia Federici explains that in the 15th Century it came to be a pay package given to the worker, in addition to the wage, as remuneration “for coming and going from home to work, at so much per mile of distance.”

So what is the economic logic behind the viaticum? It’s not simply a boost that makes our lives a bit easier – although that in itself would be a reason for celebration.

But more urgently, it penetrates to the heart of the problem of work and remuneration under capitalism. The logic of the viaticum turns the ideology of work on its head. Work is not a joy and privilege to which people should strive, kindly provided by employers. Rather, the employers are the ones who ultimately benefit most from the economic system which obliges most people to haul themselves to a workplace every day. It says – if bosses benefit from workers to travelling to a workplace, why don’t they bloody well pay them for it? If workers have to spend time and energy (not to mention a substantial proportion of their wages) on getting to and from work, then surely we should be remunerated for that?

What the 15th century workers were demanding when they gleefully forced their employers to provide viatica was for remuneration not just for productive labour, but also for elements of reproductive labour. In order for the worker to work the next day, she must go home, eat, sleep and then come back to the workplace. This reproduces her capacity to literally be at work the next day. This labour and time goes into making us fit and ready for work, and therefore indirectly feeds into the production of surplus value must be remunerated too – despite it not conforming to the strict definition of productive labour. So we can begin to see how something like a ‘Wages for Commuting’ actually finds sister demands in as ‘Wages for Housework’, or ‘Wages for Child Care’, and further even, the right to sick pay and paid lunch breaks that we – until recently – took for granted.  

And what would it look like as a 21st Century demand? The 21st century context requires an update of this demand. Now, perhaps more than ever, British workers are commuting long distances to work in (parts of) cities in which they cannot afford to live. The commute to work has become elongated, more expensive, and almost impossible to avoid.  The near total decline of agricultural and industrial work in Britain has lead to burgeoning (sub)urban populations accompanied by a concentration of capital (and jobs) within urban centres. So perhaps now more than ever we need radical answer to the problem of the commute. We can’t totally rely on public employers to solve this issue. We have to aim for nationalised, affordable transport alongside stipends for time and other expenses incurred on the way to work. Workers with disabilities that impair mobility and travel must be remunerated factoring in differences in price of accessible forms of transport and increased duration of these commutes. With a Corbyn government in waiting, the first element of this demand seems to be even closer than the horizon. 

If we’re really going to value the urgent economic necessity of all that domestic, reproductive work that goes into making workers, we can’t just talk about compensating for the travelling that goes into paid work.  Ultimately, ‘wages for commuting’ should remunerate the labour time of taking children to school, and caring for sick or elderly (all of which is largely done by women). 

We have a lot to learn from the workers of the 15th Century, and their willingness to demand exactly what they wanted for a better life. It may seem far off in a work culture where you are more likely to spend your commute willingly doing the unpaid labour of responding to work emails than you are to demand payment for simply sitting on a train and listening to a podcast. But if we don’t have the courage to value our time, and demand our bosses to value it too, then we will find it very difficult to achieve anything like the life that the proletariat deserves.

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