Wage Slaves by Daria Bogdańska
The gig economy is all around us. Pick up an app and order some food and someone will cycle to you with it. These guys seem to be working pretty hard. But, it turns out that legally they are not workers, not employees. No they are self-employed and not entitled to the minimum wage or holiday pay. They lead a precarious existence. Often young, often recent immigrants.
But some of those workers have turned the tables. A momentous decision by the Supreme Court means that Uber drivers will now be classified as employees rather than as self-employed. The case was brought by the workers union. Many workers in the gig economy but also in other low paid, precarious work have organised for better pay and conditions. Small unions like the United Voices of the World and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain have brought together workers including cleaners and security guards and have won.
This is the world that Wage Slaves is set in. An autobiographical comic, it tells of the author’s experiences as a young Polish woman coming to Malmö in Sweden. She has come to attend a comics course at a college there but needs to find work to survive. Lacking a social security number or official papers she finds work in an Indian restaurant in the bohemian neighbourhood where she lives.
She quickly finds out that the world of the undocumented worker is one of being underpaid and overworked. There are many obstacles in Daria’s way – exhaustion, her dependence on her job for survival and of course her position as an immigrant trying to figure out the byzantine bureaucracy of government. Despite her vulnerability she decides to fight back – joining a union and beginning to organise for justice.
Daria Bogdańska’s illustrations are simple but skillfully make use of comics techniques to express emotion in facial expressions. The movement of bodies is particularly well executed, the curve of a back, the tilt of a head.
The book captures the sense of alienation Daria feels. Her personal life is a struggle too. As an immigrant with few material resources she is dependent on the help of native Swedes with more secure lives. At the same time her heart wants something more. Nothing comes easy for Daria and her life is challenging and exhausting at every turn.
The theme of finding peace through making real human connections runs through the book. In one scene she watches a couple in the restaurant barely talking, just staring at their phones. They are alienated from each other just as Daria is alienated from her fellow workers due to their fear of poverty.
One set of panels shows the dialectical opposite of that moment. Daria lies in bed with her lover thinking about tactics to put pressure on her bosses. As morning arrives she persuades him to skip work and spend a rare day of freedom together instead.
Daria Bogdańska’s illustrations are simple but skillfully make use of comics techniques to express emotion in facial expressions. The movement of bodies is particularly well executed, the curve of a back, the tilt of a head. There is a fluidity and movement in the panels which helps to express the hectic nature of her days, struggling to survive, to live her life and find a better future.
These struggles are part of everyday life for millions but there have been few depictions of them in comics. I’d probably have to go back to Breaking Free, a Tintin parody published by Attack International in 1988 for an example. Wage Slaves is not such a didactic or ideological work as Breaking Free – it fits more into the autobiographical and journalistic style of Joe Sacco.
It is really positive to see works like this being published in English and credit goes to Centrala Books for this translated edition. I hope that their efforts will see a greater awareness of international comics outside of the usual Anglo-American and (if you are lucky) Franco-Belgian scenes.
Wage Slaves is full of real human experience, an autobiographical comic that avoids the angst ridden cartoonist cliches. If you want to taste some hope that the world can be made better then pick up a copy.