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Review October 2023

Nightworkers: Life on the graveyard shift

Review by Julius-Cezar MacQuarie
Edited by Lucie Dušková and Ger Duijzings, 2022
ISBN 9783110752885
279 Pages
Published by: De Gruyter Oldenbourg
Factory windows at night. Light is coming through the windows.

The first of its kind, this edited volume offers a treatment of nightwork’s specific characteristics and night shift workers’ unmet needs. Scholars from various disciplines, such as, anthropology, history, nursing, sociology, religious studies and cultural studies, tackle this rather invisible form of work, systematically and innovatively.

Rooted in industrial modernity, traversing the European, Asian and African continents, these case studies show that the mass-produced electric light bulb, time regimentation and rapidly advancing technologies and communications enabled the transformation of a day’s journey into the night. A “full-fledged night shift” (p. 2), was needed as exploitation of the primary resources – coal, gas and light, the “game changers” of yesteryear (p. 2) and the pain of today’s climate change – needed new (night)scapes.

After the introductions, chapter 2 opens up the discussion, through a hermeneutic rendering of one of the “oldest books in the New Testament”, originating in ancient Thessaloniki, in the Roman province of Macedonia. Despite its departure from the themes of this volume, the chapter echoes similar concepts of working time at night to the other contributors who focus on contemporary periods and political regimes. 

In chapter 3, the reader travels from ancient Greece to colonial India, where night was a political terrain for late-19th-century textile workers. This chapter argues that workers desire to escape, i.e. they aspire to more than just having a workplace. Thus, the night provides them with a window of non-work time, in the “dark hours” between 7-10pm. Night can also become a space for social mobility among manual workers.

In contrast to Mumbai, the second largest city in India, Rosa Maria Fina’s Lisbon nightscape was rife with “illicit” activities through which rural migrants attempted to make a living in the promising city. Yet, they could hardly manage this over “18-hour long night shifts”, without the risk of being blamed for “uselessly roaming the night streets and drinking alcohol” by industrialists concerned only with increasing productivity (p. 73).

Jakub Rákosník addresses the gender aspects of nightwork in interwar Czeckoslovakia, in particular women’s concerns about a ban on night shifts and a society for which, in general, nightwork was not seen as problematic.

Malte Müller focuses on nightworkers in Germany’s steel industry, pointing out how the “well-being of workers and their families was of secondary importance” (p.130) to the purpose of economic gains.

Anja Katharina Peters reveals how the cultural production of comics has been so damaging for night nurses, depicting them as selfless, sexed up, submissive heroines and distorting the public’s perception of these physically and emotionally taxing jobs.

Spanning more than half a century in South Africa during the apartheid years, Bridget Kenny uncovers the layers of hierarchised labour devised by racialised and gendered sorting. White women could pursue education and thus work in the day, because black women worked in the evenings.

Night shifts in socialist Czechoslovakia, as Lucie Dušková shows, played an important role in the emancipation of women. Plays and films promoted a positive image of the nightshift, whereby both women and men nightworkers engaged in a large-scale project to build and produce at night for the common good.

Asya Karaseva and Maria Momzikova show the devastating effects of the social and informational jetlag felt in two far eastern cities of the Russian Federation, Magadan (UTC + 11) and Vladivostok (UTC + 10). Digital communication from the centre (Moscow, UTC + 3) affects in a “tangible matter […] the night activities in the Far East” (p. 217), through a “national power-geometry” that places people within a nation-state on different information and mobility flows.

Modern research has attempted (and thankfully failed so far) to put an end to sleep for the sake of keeping soldiers awake several nights in a row.

Simiran Lalvani completes the volume with a contemporary scenario of platform work at night. The author focuses on the slowness of algorithms at night, and not on how taxing this experience is for platform workers (e.g. poorer pay, boredom, tiredness).

This multidisciplinary research on the temporal organisation of labour and nightshift in different places, political systems and across time closes with an epilogue, on when our sleep ends. Ahlheim eloquently shows that in the last two centuries the scientific community has been preoccupied with turning human beings, once regulated by an inner clock, into bio-automatons or “half-human, half-machine”, now regulated by capital gains through production after dark (p. 256). Modern research has attempted (and thankfully failed so far) to put an end to sleep for the sake of keeping soldiers awake several nights in a row.

Importantly, despite the lack of reliable statistical evidence, this volume acknowledges that those who end up working at night, while others sleep, are by and large migrants. They form a segment of the population that contributes to host societies despite the racial and gender divisions that characterise night labour in various economic and political regimes. However, this point is also the book’s main drawback.

Beyond its many merits, the caveat of this volume, is that a migration perspective is largely missing. Put differently, the editors acknowledge that by and large migrants work the night shift. Yet, the volume does not have one solid case study, or a section included in any of the chapters about the experiences of migrant nightworkers. Except in chapters 3 and 4, where rural-urban migrants in Mumbai and Lisbon make up the bulk of those dispossessed, i.e. they either use the night to study or hang out on the streets at night, the volume does not touch on how migration regimes may have impacted on those who end up working the graveyard shift in the first place, let alone explain why and how they landed in precarious positions at night.

One such regime with resounding effects in the literature is the guest worker programs of the 1950s and 1960s. Labour migration has impacted countries in Northern Europe, such as Germany, where large numbers of Turkish males migrated. Chapters 6 and 7, discuss labour organisation in Germany covering the guest worker period, but make no reference to the contingent of migrants, or migrant nightworkers at the time.

Today, when people flee from war in fear of their lives and to seek safety, might the editors envision a forthcoming volume about people working at night without including migrants in this bleak picture? Additionally, the editors argue that forced labour is an “anti-socialist agenda”, but it could well be a capitalist one. In which case, it is not only a political regime, but an anti-human regime with a de-humanising agenda. Perhaps this could also be a question for another volume.

Another drawback of the volume is the analysis of nightwork across political and economic regimes and in different time frames without unpacking the multi-layered precarity processes, entangled with the regimes of migration(s). In this sense, if you are a migrant, working at night, in precarious work, you are probably guaranteed a race to the bottom of this hierarchy of precarity. And if you are a woman, you will very likely land on the lowest level of jobs, at night.

Further, despite the originality that each chapter brings, with the exception of one of the editors (Ger Duijzings), the authors argue in the abstract sense about nightwork and nightworkers, not as nocturnal researchers, let alone through lived and felt experiences as researcher-nightworker.

Finally, there are editing issues with the volume. In chapters 2, 4, and 9, for example, some sentences are hard to grasp because of the convoluted language. Perhaps another round of copy editing would have done justice to this important work.

Julius-Cezar MacQuarie is a Marie-Skłodowska Curie Fellow at the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century, University College Cork, where he leads PRECNIGHTS, a project on Precarity Amongst Women Migrant Nightworkers in Ireland, under the mentorship of Dr Caitríona Ni Laoire. As a nightnographer and migration researcher, he reaches out to migrant nightshift workers in European cities because he is concerned about their invisibility from public debates, political agendas, and scholarship. He tweets at @precnights/@tweetsfromdrjc.


The writing of this paper has been made possible with the financial support from PRECNIGHTS, a project that explores precarity amongst women migrant nightworkers in Ireland. Funded under Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). Grant №: 101063938.