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'I Took Up a Blue-collar Job to Do My Research'

Olga Pinchuk shares the personal experiences that have informed her academic research, explains why manual labour is still prevalent in Russia, and examines widespread stereotypes about blue-collar workers

upakovano.ru

One has sometimes to step away from academia to get closer to science. Olga Pinchuk took this advice literally and got a job as a factory operator. Having spent a year on the factory floor, she made a few insider observations, learned to adapt to the rhythms of the factory, and wrote a book based on her findings. IQ.HSE interviewed Pinchuk who is currently a doctoral student at the HSE Campus in St. Petersburg.

 



Olga Pinchuk,
Doctoral Student, School of Arts
and Humanities; Research Assistant, Centre
for Interdisciplinary Basic Research,
HSE Campus in St. Petersburg


— Blue-collar workers today get little publicity, and our ideas about them are often based on stereotypes. You held some of these stereotypes as you applied for a factory job in 2016 — for example, you were careful to omit your master's degree from your resume, to dress inconspicuously for the job interview, and to avoid flaunting your car... After working at the factory for a year, what assumptions did you find to be true and which ones turned out to be false?

— Before taking up a factory job, I had not personally known any blue-collar workers and had assumed that I could pass for one by wearing old sneakers and drab clothes. My ideas were based on clichés from popular culture, e.g. that blue collar-workers drink too much and swear more often than people in other occupations.

These sweeping, naive and sometimes ridiculous assumptions stemmed from my ignorance and turned out to be false, of course. My co-workers at the factory drank alcohol or used foul language about as often as members of any other professional group. Another thing that I immediately discovered was that many wore good quality, fashionable clothes and did not stand out in the urban crowd; contrary to the stereotype, one cannot easily spot a blue-collar worker in the street. Not that it struck me as unexpected, but it helped me get rid of false assumptions.

Pinchuk conducted her ethnographic study using participant observation between August 2016 and August 2017, working as a first (lowest) grade packaging operator at Iriski (not the real name), a factory outside Moscow affiliated with a transnational confectionary manufacturer. In 2021, the findings from Pinchuk’s research project supported by the Khamovniki Foundation were published in the book Sboi i Polomki [Failures and Breakdowns]: An Ethnographic Study of Factory Workers.

— Are blue-collar workers aware of how they are perceived by the rest of society? Are they concerned about it?

— Some of my factory co-workers are aware that their voices are barely heard by society, their media image is often distorted, and blue-collar jobs are not seen as prestigious. But apparently they do not dwell on this too much, or see it as cause for concern.

Industrial workers make up a significant part of the Russian population. Cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg and some others increasingly relocate industrial facilities away from the city centre and replace old factory buildings with new creative clusters, and therefore, big city residents sometimes assume industrial labour to be a thing of the past. But in most smaller provincial cities and towns, especially those accommodating major industrial centres, blue-collar workers form a large part of the local community and by no means see themselves as marginalised or ignored. 

— You had to reorganise your life completely during the year of working at the factory. How would you describe a worker's life?

— Above all, a worker's life is organised around the rhythms and schedules of the factory’s operation. The equipment cannot be stopped, and so the facility operates either 24/7 or with scheduled days off. A factory employee usually works five days with two days off, each week in a new shift pattern: morning, afternoon or night-time. So, each week, you need to reschedule your free time and plan three weeks ahead, especially if you have caregiving responsibilities.

Changing your daily routines every time you are assigned to a different shift is a major challenge — according to my co-workers, it takes about a year to adapt. This rhythm of work is hard and can affect your health and other aspects of life — especially when the company makes drastic changes in the work schedule or sends workers on holiday at short notice.

Admittedly, similar conditions exist in other occupations as well, but factory work in particular demonstrates to what extent an employee is influenced by the company’s operational schedules and how much they must adapt the rest of their life to the employer's demands.

— You say that blue-collar work increasingly requires creativity and intellectual — as well as physical — effort. An external observer would explain this by technological progress. What about the perspective of someone operating a machine on the factory floor?

— From the factory floor perspective, the assumption that human machine operators are increasingly being replaced by robots and automation is more like a future that has yet to arrive. There is still a lot of manual labour in Russia, even at facilities equipped with automated machinery. Such machinery is subject to wear and tear from heavy use and rarely upgraded, so ultimately the operation requires an even larger human workforce.

The wear and tear of the machinery is usually counterbalanced by higher demands on the workers, who are required to perform ever more complex manual operations. This was the case at my factory, and I know that many other companies, even large ones, face the same challenge.

A company may have a new, fully automated production line to show off to journalists — next door to a number of large, dimly lit rooms full of old, manually operated machines.

Working in such conditions requires a certain degree of forced creativity, such as finding new ways to make outdated equipment work. Operators need specialist knowledge, as well as ingenuity and quick reflexes, to do their job using old, outdated machinery.

— Back in 2016–2017 when you were employed at the factory, the Russian economy faced a challenge that persists today — a shortage of human resources. What did it look like from your workplace and how was it addressed?

— It was addressed by using a temporary outsourced workforce. Outsourcing companies were contracted to recruit temporary workers from other parts of Russia and then, increasingly, labour migrants from Central Asia.

Compared to full-time employees, temporary ones worked harder for less pay. They were mainly used to plug the staffing gaps caused by problems with the machinery. At Iriski , for example, female temporary workers sorted out huge quantities of defective pieces caused by faulty equipment.

High staff turnover mainly affected unskilled jobs. Most work teams on the shop floor consisted of long-time employees; however, the reason why they had stayed with the company was not loyalty but limited options.

I do not think that a factory worker today can easily migrate between companies within the same area. Alternative jobs with similar pay and work conditions are rare.

According to my co-workers, you always lose out by switching employers. The longer a worker stays with their employer, the higher the bonuses. By changing jobs, one loses the seniority privilege and also needs to spend some time in a lower-paying position learning to operate the new machinery.

— Workers at Iriski refer to the Soviet and current times as 'before' and 'after' — and the comparison is usually not in favour of the present. What is the important thing they are missing now that makes them nostalgic?

— The factory was built in the late 1990s and did not exist in Soviet times. For this reason and also because of their younger age, most workers do not share this kind of nostalgia; instead, they compare 'before' and 'after' with reference to changes in the factory's management, saying that it used to be better before. 

— According to your book, the former management adhered to Soviet-era principles of operation. Does it mean that the issue is deeper than just disliking a new boss?

— In that sense, it is. The Soviet management style is paternalistic: supervisors either used to work on the shop floor before being promoted or have full knowledge of the machinery and sometimes talk to workers informally. The new type are neoliberal managers who may be unfamiliar with the technicalities of production but are well educated and know how to develop, optimise and manage business processes. It does not matter much for these managers what kind of product their company makes, and their decisions can sometimes be unreasonable as a result.

— Such as changing production schedules without taking into account the employees’ personal needs?

— Yes, this and other similar ones, such as notifying us of the new work schedule just two weeks in advance and announcing the May holidays in mid-April. This reflects the overall management style which is not employee-centred at all: you feel as if no one cares about your needs, and this certainly shapes employee attitudes towards the management.

— The factory, as shown in your book, is like a city with vehicle traffic, pedestrian crossings, a special atmosphere and people who seem to really lack protection from the arbitrary decisions of the ‘city authorities’. This concerns even full-time employees, despite the Labour Code and social security package. But why?

— The main reason is the absence of communication between those who make decisions and those who experience the consequences. Even when employee rights are violated, senior management may never learn about it, because workers do not always feel free to report the wrongdoings.

In an ideal world, unions should be there to facilitate communication, as they can relate to both sides and act as mediators. But there was no union at our factory — everyone was left to fend for themselves.

— Could it be the particular mentality? Enduring for a long time and then, God forbid, launching a merciless rebellion?

— I would disagree, because I have seen companies where workers built their unions from the ground to stand up for their rights. An important consideration for Russia is that we have many low-resource groups and numerous risks. Many shop-floor workers are a low-resource group and feel disempowered to change anything; they do not wish to risk losing their job or being denied their bonus, which is a substantial part of their earnings.

Unable to change the situation, they have to adapt to it. But even without an outward protest, they do not necessarily do the management's bidding. At Iriski , for example, opposition to the management took the form of breaking some rules or making agreements with other shop floor teams to reduce the workload.

— As per your conclusions, in addition to the distance between shop-floor employees and management, there is also a distance between blue-collar workers and academic researchers studying them. The latter seem to have poor knowledge of their subject. What is missing?

— The main problem is limited opportunities for long-term studies in the ethnography of labour. In Western academia, to the best of my knowledge, PhD courses in anthropology include a year of field research. This is not the case in Russia, and no one will finance such an additional year.

Since the 1960s, a large body of labour research has been conducted in Western countries using participatory observation, when researchers went into the field such as a factory floor, a strawberry picking farm or a cleaning company to observe the world of work from the workers' perspective.

No such experience or tradition exists in Russia, while methods such as interviewing or surveys do not accurately convey this perspective. Given limited access to the field and a lack of available data, various categories of workers remain virtually invisible to those who study society.

— Your research began as a team effort but then turned into a 'personal adventure'. It appears logical, because you took up a factory job on your own rather than as part of a research team. But you also share another perspective and point out wider problems with how academic research is conducted in Russia.

— Indeed, one can rarely focus exclusively on a research project without worrying about paying the bills, especially in a big city. Scholarships, salaries and research grants from foundations are relatively small, forcing the researcher to take up work on the side rather than focus on just one thing.

This, with some reservations, was the case with my colleagues at the laboratory: being engaged in other projects, they were unable to focus in-depth on the factory research which I pursued to the exclusion of everything else.

— According to the safety briefing you were given at the factory, 'by setting foot in the production area you immediately enter a high-risk zone'. A machine operator can face risks to life and health on the factory floor. What about a researcher?

— Depending on the situation and environment, potential risks can be numerous, including the stress of having to take on two different roles and to sit down to write up your notes after a tiring work shift. Later on, as you start publishing your observations and making presentations, ethical challenges may arise: what if your careless statement is interpreted as a stereotype and undermines your relationship with the respondents?

— Are such experiments ethical in the first place? Did you feel as if you were spying on other people?

— According to current trends in research ethics, you should be open from the start about your research objectives. Some researchers even ask respondents to sign informed consent to whatever they plan to ask them to do during their study.

I didn't do that, but pretty quickly disclosed my status to the co-workers and then to the supervisors. So it was not an undercover mission — which, incidentally, prevented potential issues that could arise had I been secretive or untruthful about my biography and identity.

— Here is the entry you made in your observation diary after your first day of work: 'I feel like quitting this adventure right now’. Was it the physical fatigue from working as a packer — or the stress of facing this new world with which you seemed to have nothing in common?

— As such, the world of blue-collar workers was not intimidating. But I was hardly a seasoned researcher at the time. I was physically exhausted, not used to this type of work, and afraid to just give up and quit. Placed in an unfamiliar role, without any knowledge of the operation or of my new co-workers, I was worried — what if I fail to relate to the team or operate the machinery? It was a mixture of feelings and fears that caused my initial reaction.

— Did you ever get the feeling that that world you'd entered might prevail over your intentions, i.e. the packer would cope but the researcher would eventually quit?

— I was just starting my academic career and did not know much about being a researcher, nor did I have a clear idea of what I was doing at the factory. I was simply pursuing my interest and felt no need to differentiate between my identities, both of which were doing fine.

A few months later, I began to notice that balancing my two roles required a great deal of effort; for example, I could be really upset about a conflict or a failure at work and needed to remind myself that such situations provided valuable insights for my research.

Having spent a while in the field, you find that constantly managing the boundaries between the participant and observer roles can be difficult and even unnecessary: sometimes it is enough to reflect on the situation and your reaction to it. Developing this reflecting habit helped me remember to maintain my field diaries and to make sure that I was primarily a researcher and not a 100-percent factory worker.

— How you felt on your first day at the factory is now clear. But what about the first day after you left the factory job? Did you feel once again that the world around you had changed?

— Indeed, things had changed a lot. It felt like being discharged from the army. I was dismissed from the factory and issued with my employment record book. Then I spent a week doing nothing at all. It was as if I had come back home from a parallel universe.

Perhaps it was due to the release of psychological tension from having to adapt to the factory rhythms. It was not about the factory work per se but about owning my time once again. I got it back but then suddenly realised that I had forgotten how to handle it.

I was so used to the factory schedule that it seemed natural, and I had to re-learn how to manage my time and to maintain my focus. This was a new challenge for me.

— While at the factory, you thought of writing a novel based on your field notes. Will you write it some day?

— Yes, I have been thinking about writing a novel. I am not sure it will be about the factory though, and I will certainly not write it soon — perhaps only after my thesis.
IQ
 

Further reading
About blue-collar workers:

 Абрамов Р.Н. (2019). Рабочие в современных социологических исследованиях: российский контекст. Вестник Удмуртского университета. Социология. Политология. Международные отношения, 3(3): 283–292.

 Пинчук О.В. (2018). «Нестандартные» условия труда женщин на производстве: опыт включенного наблюдения. Интеракция. Интервью. Интерпретация, 15: 24–40.

 Тартаковская, И., & Ваньке, А. (2016). Карьера рабочего как биографический выбор. Социологическое обозрение, 15(3).

 Morris J. Everyday Post-Socialism. Working-Class Communities in the Russian Margins. London: Plagrave Macmillan, 2016.

About participatory observation:

 Humphreys M., Watson T. J. (2009). Ethnographic practices: from ‘writing-up ethnographic research’ to ‘writing ethnography’. Organizational ethnography: Studying the complexities of everyday life, Sage. 40-55.

 Smith, V. (2001). Ethnographies of work and the work of ethnographers. Handbook of ethnography. Sage. 220-233.

Author: Svetlana Saltanova, December 28, 2021