Raconter le monde par l'intime

9 to 5 the time of your life

Free to work: the false promise of remote-working

By Pamela Rahn Sánchez

Lire en français (FR) | Leer en español (ES) - versión original

Pamela, a young writer based in Caracas, thought she had found a good gig when she landed a remote job with a global company. But that was before she discovered its Orwellian flip side...

I accepted the job because it didn't seem so difficult, it was something I had never done before, but I could learn.

I was under the impression that it would give me some free time, to write, to have a social life, to watch series, that's what I thought, but I was wrong. After I signed the contract, they presented me with the real conditions : 8 hours of work a day, 6 days a week, with a robotic program installed on  your computer that allows it  to  detect human heat and know if you  are actually in  front of your screen. 

At first, I was happy, I live in a precarious situation where any job is a joy for my pocket. The job was an advertising course for a Youtuber. I would earn a measly $400, derived of course from South American exploitation. I would soon realize that all of the company’s new hires  were Venezuelan because of a comment made by Charlie, the boss in one of the many Zoom meetings we had every morning, a comment that was meant to be funny, but that actually made me quite sad. Behind the screen, Charlie started to greet us, interrupted by a flood of notifications of people reconnecting to the meeting."It seems like the power went out to everyone at the same time," he said with a laugh. Even though I knew the answer, I asked : "Are there only Venezuelans on the team?"; "Yes, we only recruit Venezuelans here!”. 

I smiled, while swallowing my anger to take in all the cynicism of the situation in which I now would have to participate.

Simone de Beauvoir said that work was the only thing that could guarantee complete freedom to women, and in a way she was right. Work gives money and money gives freedom, however, to obtain that freedom we must cling to the labor cage, with a lot of luck, we may like that cage, we are passionate about it. With little luck, the only thing we are passionate about relating to that cage is the economic return we get for licking the bars.

If you work in an office, the time you spend in the act of going to the bathroom, eating lunch, or talking to a co-worker counts as part of the workday. When working at home, under the watchful eye of a schedule that seems to be made by a fascist leader of a labor dystopia, free time slowly ceases to exist. The clock takes the form of an invisible eye, you see it counting the minutes on your computer and you begin to feel guilty for taking a break.

The schedule was not from 9 to 5, it always became more, if you did not want to spend all day with your butt glued to the chair, it was definitely extended until 7.  If you want to get a glass of water, you have to stop the clock. If you want to go to the bathroom, you must stop the clock. If you want to talk to your boyfriend, you must stop the clock. As long as the click is not moving or the letters are not vibrating, the company does not consider you to be working, as if thinking was no longer worth anything at all. 
For them, only the action was relevant. Click, click, click. That was work.

When the robot had a glitch, especially when the power went out - which happens quite a lot in Venezuela unfortunately - there was from time to time an employee who was in charge of watching by camera that you were in front of the computer typing the necessary words, sometimes, that employee did not show up or let it pass, I liked to think it was a silent wink that we did between all of us who, for lack of a better opportunity, had accepted this miserable job.

“Here we treat you as a team, we hire our employees to train them and keep them for a long time, we believe in loyalty”, Charlie told us in a speech learned from watching too many videos on social media on how to be a good leader. Before my grim face, which showed tedium for a welcome to a job that, apart from the miserable pay, did not interest me at all, Charlie, whose Millennial boyish face, despite having seen him only once, assured me with almost a certain disdain that he was always dressed in casual clothes, was quick to realize this and immediately added: “we also increase the salary, if we see that our employees are valuable and reliable”. So many adjectives were screwing me up a bit, because I already knew what was coming to me. 

I have a habit of speaking my mind to  bosses, I like to get into trouble, maybe. I have never tolerated injustice. It is true that I have a friction with authority, even in childhood I did not tolerate teachers who were excessively imposing. I was constantly expelled from the classroom, maybe that's why I am a writer, for living outside the classroom, from primary to high school, for never learning to respect the heads that according to the order of the world were above mine.

I was to design a course based on another course, a course that had clearly been downloaded illegally. It was a girl who taught how to make money on the social network TikTok. In one googling I realized that the course cost $1200. Charlie, the boss, particularly insisted: “it must not be a Copycat of the course, you must put it in your own voice, you must investigate TikTok, the idea is that I am going to turn that course into video and sell it to different platforms”. I imagined all the thousands of dollars they were going to make from  selling that course and the miserable 400 dollars I would be paid for making the script of the course, again I remained silent. 

I couldn't leave, I was the only one making any money in my household at that moment, if I didn't get paid, we wouldn't eat the next month, I began to hear and type the words that Sabrina, the real mastermind behind the course, so cheerfully and enthusiastically promised that they were going to change your business and your life, that they would generate thousands of dollars for you. “Come on Sabrina ! I would yell at her. How did you come to turn this into your passion ? What happened to you when you were a child ?” But Sabrina seemed happy, and a millionaire, and she couldn't hear me, or maybe she could, and laughed at me.

Charlie wanted me to research TikTok, to look at other courses, to study and compare, to analyze which resources were better. I didn't understand what was going on in his mind or what he believed about his employees. I had no interest in becoming the Simone de Beauvoir in the art of TikTok, did he assume that we had nothing better to do with our lives or were we so stupid, that we did not analyze what was going on? I was not the only one doing a course of this style, there was another girl from Merida, doing a Facebook Marketing course. 

Being hired as a writer, ending up working as a researcher, graphic designer and teacher. Three professions I was not qualified for and that I had to improvise, came to extirpate the limit of my patience. I unknowingly made it my goal to make this course as bad as possible. Some will not understand and will think that in the end it was a job, that I was the one who was going to lose out, but the truth is that when I finished it, I made it so simple that I could teach it to an 8 year old child.  This was my revenge. However, the boss whose record of courses already completed did not forget to mention every time he wanted to give you an example of how you should be doing your job, asked me to write down the examples, because he could not think of any on his own. He even wanted me to put the words he was going to say while greeting the audience, you can imagine this guy’s  level of creativity.

I got up every day at 6:50 a.m. to have breakfast before starting the day's work, setting the clock to count the minutes and hours, with the hope that Charlie would talk a lot at the Zoom meeting, telling his problems of the previous day, or asking for advice for an important decision such as a new vase he was going to buy for the background of his videos. I must admit, sometimes, I felt a little sorry for him: he was clearly a lonely person.

The truth is that since the pandemic, online jobs are problematic. There is a lot of talk about the basic tedium of the 9 to 5 job, how many put up with it because it affords  them a good weekend, or the ability to lead a good life. There are others who unfortunately just make a living, if you can call it a living, making ends meet with debt and eating badly, no vacation, thinking that a piece of chocolate is a luxury, but now there is an even bigger disease, what happens when your whole day is actually absorbed by online work?

You wake up every morning and find the embers of the alarm clock, the stones of boredom and the music of emptiness. An emptiness that sounds like keystrokes, the rattling of a back bent by the poor ergonomic conditions of your dining room chair, without realizing it, you continue typing with cold hands past lunchtime, without talking to anyone but yourself for 5 hours, you are already inside a daily routine that looks a lot like that dark loop of 1984, but without any Big Brother, no bloodstain, no room 101. All this was imposed on you, to earn a salary, to continue "living"? Without realizing it we kindly open the door and invite hell into our home.

There is more freedom, however, it is a cloud of smoke. We are locked in our homes like prisons, the 9 to 5 is dead, we are working all day long, you never stop working, you pay the price for the boundary between free time and work being completely diluted. 

Charlie, at times, was touchingly naive, he did not understand that nobody was interested in his furniture, or that asking so many questions was not derived from the passion we felt for doing our job well, but Andrea, the boss after him, was really the one we had to fear, someone who acted directly out of a spirit of treason, to collude with the enemy. Being Venezuelan and having advanced in the company, she knew all the tricks we played to avoid working, insisted on speaking in English in meetings where Charlie was not present, even though he supposedly understood Spanish. She could have been our ally, but she chose to be the right hand of the enemy. I know I shouldn't care so much, but you have to put a dramatic twist  on the most mundane aspects of  everyday life to keep from dying  of boredom.

When she would conduct the morning meetings, alone, without Charlie present, she would tell us exactly what we had to do for the day, quickly, enumerated, almost as if she herself was counting the seconds with a stopwatch, and she would force us to leave the meeting immediately to start working. No time to lose, she would say: “let's work! let's work!” Everyone would leave, without saying goodbye, sometimes we would say goodbye, happy, when this happened something in her face would twist, but she could not stop the joy, work was not the only important thing in our lives and we had the right to be happy in spite of her meanness.

If we lasted longer within the company, would that bring us to our end? Were we going to burn ourselves out in marketing classes and coaching speeches? With the deep conviction that we couldn't find better, that it wasn't so bad? That taking the time to talk was a privilege? 

Obedience has its advantages, one of them being quietness. but rebellion is rewarded with respect. It is unfortunate that the value of respect has been lost along with the value of slowness. As if no one had time to think anymore, only to obey.

I do not know, what would happen in the future, I did have the time to care, I had to keep writing these stupid words to earn money to survive, but while I was there, I would build a story, I would create suspense, I would build together with the workers a rebellion. I was almost there, the other day Charlie called me alone on Zoom to tell me that Andrea was wrong, that I was right in everything I had said about how things should be done, different accounts should be generated, data should be entered to make the right screenshots. We would start right away, we were on the right track. Why did this matter so much to me, give me so much pleasure ? Should I be careful to come to the end of myself?

I would not get carried away. A certain glow was in the future : in a coup de fiction,  I would overthrow Andrea, turn her into a character.

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Pamela Rahn Sánchez
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Pamela Rahn Sanchez. She is the author of Brief Poems to Understand Absence (2019, Ediciones Torremozas, Spain) among other collections of poems. In 2022 she was a resident at IWP at the University of Iowa and the City of Asylum in the city of Pittsburgh.