What is work?

As I reach my four month anniversary of living in Ecuador I realize that my perspectives of what is considered work have been challenged by the work experiences I have endured as well as observed. At my previous apprenticeship I worked at an ecotourism museum called Kamak Maki, which consisted of Kichwa artifacts, a zoo, a medicinal garden, a natural medicine store, and handmade Kichwa crafts store.  Seven days a week the museum employed nearly my entire extended family including my mom and my dad, on its property where my home was located. I spent more time in the dining area of the museum than I did in my own house because my mom opted to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner there with her siblings and relatives. This made it particularly confusing to differentiate between when I was and was not working because the museum was always opened.

Between eating my meals at the museum, going to bathroom, working, and relaxing it was extremely difficult to determine when I was actually working. Was I working 24/7 or was I just living my life which was my work? As Andriana Mata Greenwood discusses in Gender Issues in Labour Statistics, statistics are needed on work schedules to better describe the workforce.  As I personally experienced, determining what is ‘work’ and what is not working hours is difficult to differentiate when one is living and working in the same place. Due to my family spending ‘downtime’ at the museum I could not figure out what was a family obligation or an obligation for the museum.

Greenwood also discusses how women tend to work closer to home or with their families because they tend to have lower degrees of education and thus cannot find work elsewhere. In addition, women are typically the ones to take care of the children and do house work.  Finding employment further from home when they have household responsibilities would not necessarily make sense economically. The majority of the people who work at Kamak Maki are women that are related to the family. My mom was one of those women. I’m not sure if it was her choice to work at the family business but she fit into the two main categories as to why women work close to home. She did not finish high school and had housework and a baby to care of on a daily basis. This indicates that statistics are true, women are more likely to be involved in the family business than men. I think education is the main reason behind this. Out of the five men who work at the museum only one of them is related to the extended family. My own father did not work at the museum, instead he studied during the day for his classes at night.

Greenwood brings to the forefront that girls are more likely to do child labor than boys which can also disrupt labor statistics. A 17 year old girl I befriended did not go to school like a typical girl the United States. Instead, she worked and lived at the museum for 22 days, she would then travel back to Tena, a city forty minutes from the museum to live with her father for 8 days. I know that life is different in Ecuador but I can’t imagine leaving school to work at a mundane job. I feel guilty that I never asked about her dreams and aspirations. Did she choose this life or did this life choose her?

I am so grateful to have had the experience of living and working in the same place. I now understand why collecting labor statistics can be so challenging. To capture the complex details of the work and family lives of my host family in Ecuador might require rethinking the category of work itself.  Through this year’s experience I hope to better articulate why work here is different than at home.