Ideas & Debates

The Night Shift: Capitalism’s Silent Killer

Millions work night shifts to satisfy the capitalist system’s around-the-clock drive for profits, which poses a serious threat to the health of night workers. Time for a fight back to reclaim the daylight and our health.

June 21, 2016

Around 15 million workers in the US do some sort of night work— either a rotating, second, (evening) or graveyard (midnight) shift. About one fifth of the working population works at least 48 hours per week and an additional 7 percent work 60 hours or more. Irregular schedules and excessive overtime have a disruptive effect on workers’ sleep habits, diet and family lives. The overall negative health effects are demonstrable.
There are few protections against shift work and excessive overtime. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard offers no specific protection against night shifts. The few protections that exist are mainly included in union contracts. Unionization in the US is at a very low rate of 11.1 percent of the workforce, about 14.8 million workers, down from about 20 percent (more than 17 million workers) in 1983. The public sector rate of unionization is just over 35 percent and in the private sector union membership is at 6.7 percent. The protections offered by union contracts are often restricted to language governing wage rates – offering some sort of pay differential for shift work.
For those workers without union protection, the night shift may not offer any extra pay. For instance, the stocking crews at Walmart, often subcontracted through employment agencies like Manpower, Inc., will make at or just over the minimum wage.
It is difficult to get statistics on how many people work night shifts worldwide or on the conditions these workers are forced to endure. In the developed countries, 15 to 20 percent of the working population work other than a regular day shift. In Britain, more than 3 million work nights, increasingly women workers who are often in low wage home care work or in nursing. In Canada, 4.1 million workers work some form of night shift. Women are about 37 percent of full-time night workers.
It is safe to say that millions work under harsh conditions, and with few protections, in sweatshops all over the globe. The burden often falls on women. In export processing zones (epz) in developing countries which are dominated by low-skill manufacturing, the workforce is about 80 percent women.
In China, for example, at a factory that produces the Apple iPhone 6, workers making $1.85 per hour regularly work 12 hour shifts 6-7 days per week and are forced to live in filthy conditions in crowded dormitories.
“…Apple refuses to do what’s necessary to ensure workers who make that success possible are treated fairly and work in safe environments…We can only conclude that Apple pursues profit maximization for itself and its shareholders no matter the lives of people making Apple products."

Who works nights?

Night shift, either evening (second) or graveyard (overnight), workers are in health care, manufacturing, chemical processing, construction, transport (trucking, railroads and public transit), retail, food service, and janitorial work.
The negative health effects of night work, due to the disruption of sleep patterns and diet, can lead to depression, increased risk of cancer, heart attack, diabetes, metabolic disruption, irregular digestion, and accidents due to fatigue and inattention. Working night shift for long periods has been shown to lower cognitive function and shorten life expectancy. According to some studies, workers who had worked about 10 years of night shift had severe loss of memory and reasoning ability; compared to day workers, their brains had aged an extra six years. About 20 percent of serious car wrecks are linked to driver fatigue.
Michael Hastings, a professor at Cambridge University says, “All our organs are running to this pre-programmed genetic pattern to make them do certain things at one time of day and different things at another.” Studies have shown that most people do not adapt to a night schedule. Rotating shifts, where workers move periodically from day to night, are actually worse than a regular night shift, in spite of claims by bosses that these types of shifts are fairer.
Marxism and the night shift
Marx, writing in Capital, Volume I, addressed the question of night shifts:
“The prolongation of the working-day beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night, only acts as a palliative. It quenches only in a slight degree the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour. To appropriate labor during all the 24 hours of the day is, therefore, the inherent tendency of capitalist production. But as it is physically impossible to exploit the same individual labour-power constantly during the night as well as the day, to overcome this physical hindrance, an alternation becomes necessary between the work people whose powers are exhausted by day, and those who are used up by night. (…) This 24 hours’ process of production exists today as a system in many of the branches of industry of Great Britain that are still ‘free,’ in the blast-furnaces, forges, plate-rolling mills, and other metallurgical establishments in England, Wales, and Scotland. The working-time here includes, besides the 24 hours of the 6 working-days, a great part also of the 24 hours of Sunday. The workers consist of men and women, adults and children of both sexes. The ages of the children and young persons run through all intermediate grades, from 8 (in some cases from 6) to 18.”

Workers in power restrict night work

The Paris Commune abolished night work for bakery workers, who had been struggling for two years previous to the establishment of the Commune. Three thousand bakers had marched on the Hotel de Ville to present their demands. Auguste-Jean-Marie Vermorel, a socialist Communard, declared, “It would be against all justice and all human rights to allow a particular class of workers to be separated from society in the interests of the aristocracy of the stomach.” — The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy, Donny Gluckstein, p. 17
The Bolsheviks abolished night shift for women, except in cases of “extreme necessity,” but by the time of the fall of the USSR, the ban was not enforced and it was estimated that 3.8 million women workers were working night shifts. In fact, 3 times more Soviet women, many of them industrial workers, worked night shifts than men. — Soviet Workers and the Collapse of Perestroika: The Soviet Labour Process, Donald Filtzer, p. 173
Modern capitalism, with its drive for profits, requires a workforce that is available for exploitation 24-7. The capitalist is not inclined to let expensive plant and equipment sit idle. The profit-making mechanism must function around the clock. Socialists and the labor movement must question the necessity of night shifts. How can they be minimized and made less stressful on workers? How would a socialist society approach night shifts? Certainly, the preservation of gains, like the elimination of night shift, depends on the greatest possible workers control of the means of production and on the establishment of a system of socialist democracy.

Struggle gets the goods

In 2012, South Korean auto workers at Kia and Hyundai won the elimination of night shifts after a strike. It’s clear that night shifts are not in the interests of working people. Our unions must go beyond negotiation wage differentials and work to limit and, as much as possible, eliminate night work. Of course, some professions, like health care and emergency services, are necessary around the clock, but there are ways to offset the burden by shortening the work day with no loss in pay, the automation of some processes, and increasing the number of workers on shifts. The health of workers should also be closely monitored in order to help stave off the worst health problems.
Winning the elimination of night shifts will require struggle along with the reconstruction of a class-struggle wing in the unions at both the rank and file and leadership level. After decades of a one-sided class war waged against workers, an independent fight back is needed both in the streets and at the ballot box. Victory will depend on the ability of the unions to break their subordination to the bosses and the Democratic Party.

John Leslie is a construction worker who works night shifts.


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