Posted: March 18th, 2023

The role temp agencies play in the labor market

Netflix employees “tear, slap, and clack” through a day’s work can be easily understood within a classic sociological framework, using either a Marxist or a Durkheim lens. Both Marx and Durkheim would have noted that the Netflix model represents quintessential division of labor. The employees perform one task with maximum efficiency. While Durkheim would focus primarily on the social contracts and organization of the employees within the Netflix organization, Marx would critique the means by which the Netflix associates are distanced from the owners of the means of production, their labor artificially devalued and exploited, especially given the employees come from developing countries in Africa and Asia. However, the way Sheehan describes the Netflix operation shows that Durkheim’s concepts of social solidarity, specialization, and interdependence are indeed requisite to human survival and are inescapable, as the sociologists affirms in his dissertation on the function of the division of labor.

Whereas Marx focuses on conflict and division, Durkheim emphasizes bonding and collaboration. The Netflix case, as Sheehan describes it, fits Durkheim’s model better than Marx’s because there is a lack of conflict embedded in the analysis. In fact, the employees of Netflix are called “associates,” in a deliberate attempt to include the women in the company. The term associate connotes partner in the way employee does not. By calling the employees associates, the Netflix company affirms a commitment to social solidarity and group membership. While the associates only make $9/hour and are far removed from what Marx called the means of production, the women from Asia and Africa are empowered to a degree. They work as fast as they would like, for example. They also receive free membership and movies, which further entrenches them into the system and connects them directly to the work they do. One woman described by Sheehan notes that she observes which film titles pass through her hands the most each day, and has learned about movies and television shows through her job. The process of unpacking and then stuffing the Netflix envelopes might represent the division of labor, but it does not necessarily represent the division of social classes.

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Thus, Marx’s theory does not fit the Netflix example as well as Durkheim’s. Marx would certainly be correct in pointing out that Netflix is a capitalist institution and that the laborers are not directly connected to the means of production. The women stuffing envelopes are not shareholders in the company. Likewise, a degree of commodity fetishism also takes place in the Netflix model. Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, which he outlines in Das Capital, holds that things are valued more than people in a capitalist society. The readers of the Sheehan article will recognize their own participation in commodity fetishism when they realize that it seemed like magic that a DVD had suddenly appeared on their doorstop. After all, Sheehan had to actually explain to readers how their movies arrived in the mail; the human being had never been included in the Netflix description of their services. In other words, the human factor had been thoroughly removed from the rental and exchange system.

In Das Capital, Marx outlines the role that wage workers play in the exploitative system. Yet Marx’s theory falls short of explaining the role that temp agencies play in the labor market. When Marx wrote Das Capital and The Communist Manifesto, the labor market did not have what are now known as temp agencies, and also did not permit as free a flow of human resources as can be seen today in a fully globalized market. Moreover, Sheehan notes that the employees in the Netflix warehouse are primarily women, which are the most systematically oppressed and subjugated demographic group on the planet. By empowering the women with work, Netflix contributes to social empowerment and solidarity, not class struggle and conflict. The division of labor in the Netflix factory empowers the women by giving them access to a wealth of creative content they might not have encountered otherwise. Moreover, it must be mentioned that the Netflix model is based on the commodification of an abstract item: entertainment. The DVDs themselves are not worth much, but the creative content contained on those disks is the actual commodity.

Whereas Marx critiques the division of labor, Durkheim lauds it for being an organic system and one that promotes social harmony. In Chapter III in The Division of Labor, Durkheim discusses the organic solidarity arising from the division of labor. Durkheim also notes that the division of labor is shared in common among all societies throughout time and is one of the defining characteristics of human societies. Division of labor is one of the few elements that otherwise disparate cultures share in common, which perhaps accounts for the fact that women from Africa and Asia can find a common ground working in the Netflix warehouse. Given Durkheim believes that homogeneity is the inevitable outcome of culture, it also makes sense that African and Asian women come into contact with North American and European cinema in the same way American consumers of Netflix products encounter Asian and European films. During every step of the film or television production process, there must be a division of labor. After all, an actor cannot also write the movie, direct it, build its sets, market the film, manufacture the DVDs, and also run the cinemas that show the film. It takes a plethora of people with diverse backgrounds, talents, and interests to participate in the shared process of film production and dissemination. The Netflix example shows that Marx may have been wrong when he claimed that the division of labor produces alienation and that eliminating division of labor was “essential to…enabling human creativity to flourish,” (Slide Notes, p. 20).

Emphasizing social solidarity, as Durkheim does, allows a fuller understanding of the Netflix model and how it parallels broad social change. The agreed-upon interest and shared value of entertainment bonds people from around the world. The Netflix women are thus a part of something greater than themselves, something that transcends differences in culture, language, gender, and religion. Durkheim uses the analogy of bronze to show that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: “the hardness of bronze arises from the mixing of them…in the complex substance they form by coming together,” (Slide Notes, p. 3). According to Durkheim, the division of labor highlights the means by which unique elements work together to achieve common goals. Common goals in this case are the goal of an enjoyable life through creative enterprise and entertainment; and the goal of economic viability through access to income. Both of these goals are fulfilled in the Netflix story.

By participating in the distribution of DVDs, the women in Sheehan’s story become part of the film industry in a direct way. They are not alienated, but rather, they are integrated into the community. Actors and filmmakers depend on people like those women to ensure their own profitability, and to ensure rewards for their hard work. Likewise, the women in the Netflix factory need the entertainment value of television shows and movies. Every organ of the body has a function that is specialized and specific, and likewise, so does each person. It is also possible that one of the women in the Netflix factory might become inspired to write a movie because of her continued contact with film during her job.

Works Cited

Durkheim, Emile. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press, 1984.

Lecture Slides.

Marx, Karl. Das Capital. Vol. I

Sheehan, Susan. “Tear, Slap, Clack.” The New Yorker. 28 Aug, 2006.

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