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What if…? We understood the value of our labour? with Migrant’s Bureau

Posted on 1 September 2020

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Guest Author

What’s Vital Now? is an online series that will share voices from different communities, sectors and disciplines, on what we can do to create more inclusive and sustainable places that bring people together while responding to the needs and aspirations of our diverse communities.

Written by Migrant’s Bureau
Image: The Argosy (Louis Sobol/Argosy)

Emotional labour is work that that must be done in addition to what is expected, it is work that requires one to expend energy to manage internal conflicts, feelings and ideas in addition to performing the physical labour that is tied to it. In its original coinage, emotional labour came from managing social anxiety and disenchantment, but as the use of this term became more widespread in recent years it has come to be particularly pertinent beyond literal work, disassociating from physical labour as we collectively disassociate ourselves further from physical work and move into digital work.

“Emotional labor… is the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings.” [1]

Discussions about value can often come in the context of capital and consumption – though this is not exactly the lens in which we will talk about them, we recognise that these aspects of the concept are integral. In beginning to dissect modes of labour beyond the physical it is possible to build a taxonomy in which you can use to better understand the relationship between value and labour attributed to creating it. Currently, for people of colour and the “other”, this relationship is usually exploitative and emotionally draining.

Today, developing an understanding of value is key because it allows one to begin to question the structures and social circumstances in which that value is priced, negotiated or arrived at. It is through a disconnect between the value and the labour required, whether intentional or not, that oppression can continue to take root.

“There is no such thing as a woman who doesn’t work. There is only a woman who isn’t paid for her work.” [2]

People of colour have been conditioned to minimise themselves and their identities as a means of existing in spaces dominated by white people – a form of emotional labour. As a result, we have internalised biases against our own value. Learning to see ourselves as lesser. In a world where the standard for brilliance comes in the form of the “default man[3] we have been continually reminded that our experiences and thus our value are not worth the time when measured up against the traditional yardstick for excellence.

But there is value in the experiences of everyone – your experiences colour the lens in which you process and externalise your work. When a group of people all come from the same place, you shouldn’t then be surprised when you get the same outcomes. The same types of experiences are being represented. There is only a “diversity of thought[4]

As the experiences of the “other” fall through the cracks, disparities in society continue to materialise more literally through buildings and design. The outward projection of lived and learned experiences of the few reinforce divisions, without consideration for how those projections might be offensive or “missing the mark” – Think modelling attire or poorly thought out beer adverts. It is key to mention that the value of your experiences are not just about padding out the room as a sounding board for offensive material, such an approach reduces the lived experiences of the “other” down to their traumas (tying emotional labour further with their everyday experiences in the professional world).

So, when asked to write about your experiences, help develop ideas or share your words recognise that you are being asked to perform labour, labour that needs to be adequately remunerated. What is vital now is that we do not settle for mere representation, when we are entitled to much more.

Migrant’s Bureau is an interdisciplinary social design & urbanism practice facilitating design interventions, research, podcasts and community workshops for both trans-local and global disenfranchised & migrant communities.


[1] The Concept Creep of ‘Emotional Labor’, The Atlantic, 2018. Article here.

[2] Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez (2019)

[3] ‘Grayson Perry: The rise and fall of Default Man’, The New Statesman, 2014. Article here.

[4] Matt Hancock slammed after bizzare response when asked ‘how many black people are in your cabinet?’, The Independent, 7 June 2020. Article here.