Daria Bogdanska’s graphic novel memoir Wage Slaves follows her journey as a Polish student in Sweden, where her experience finding and maintaining a job led her to fight for workers’ rights. The book carefully balances personal stories with a clear and insightful description of Swedish labour laws, the treatment of immigrants, and the difficult but rewarding process of unionization.
Bogdanska, a Warsaw-born cartoonist and punk musician, moves to Malmö, Sweden, to attend art school. While in school, she finds herself caught in a nightmarish bureaucracy which makes finding legitimate employment nearly impossible. To get a job, she needs a Swedish personal identity number, the requirements for which include being employed.
Relying on her few connections, Bogdanska manages to get hired at an Indian restaurant, making ends meet by picking up several low-paying jobs. However, she soon discovers pay discrimination at the restaurant, where wages are based off of a hierarchy of nationality, language, and student status. Dismayed and disgusted, Bogdanska networks with her friends and coworkers in a lengthy fight for better regulation and better treatment of immigrant workers.
Part of what makes Wage Slaves so compelling is its clear-eyed perspective on the systems at hand. Bogdanska expresses that, while everyone around her is underpaid and under-served, certain workers – immigrants, people of colour, non- students – are treated significantly worse. Throughout the book, Bogdanska addresses that not everyone can afford to speak out. As her coworker points out, Bogdanska is in an unusual and fortunate position to be able to criticize the system at all.
Wage Slaves explains parts of exploited service work that are not intuitive to those outside the industry. Bogdanska’s memoir doesn’t just shed light on this exploitation, but also provides an example of how to begin to make change. More importantly, she strives to remain a conscientious ally to those around her, giving full credit to people whose bravery informed her work. Though there were moments when I wondered about Bogdanska’s awareness of her position and privileges compared to her coworkers, she consistently addresses the benefits of her identity as a non-racialized student. She remains aware that she lives in a relatively “progressive” country, and discusses the linguistic hierarchies present in Malmö – speaking good Swedish is a huge advantage, one which she struggles to attain.
Drawn in expressive ink, Bogdanska presents a story which weaves together her interpersonal struggles with her attempts to find her place in a new country, as well as the harsh realities of systemic labour injustice. Reading the book, I resonated with many of her issues and her frustration, and above all her sense of helplessness in the face of a system that was not made for, or paying attention to, people like her. I have only had brief experiences in food service, because I had the ability to quit as soon as I experienced the type of exploitation Bogdanska highlights. I found myself strongly identifying with her struggles to balance difficult work, school, life, and her identity.
Sharing her struggle with precarious labour, under-the-table payment, and how she ultimately started to bring about change is as personal as it is educational. Though by no means a how-to manual, Wage Slaves depicts in grungy realism keen insights into the complicated process of organizing in your community.
This article is a part of our joint issue with Le Délit on Labour, Body, & Care. To read their pieces, visit delitfrancais.com.