Cities After Dark - Night Shift

What is the city like when you work at night? Who watches the kids without child care, who makes your coffee when all the cafes are closed, how do you commute? Tonight we explore night shift work and how cities can be better at serving a 24-hour economy.

This is the third episode of our six-part series, where our co-hosts Shelby Bassett and Michele Acuto talk with Julius-Cezar MacQuarie, Su-Jan Yeo, Emilia Smeds and Jenny McArthur.

  • Transcript

    Michele Acuto:

    Imagine you're on the back of a garbage truck, winding its way down the streets of Sydney in the late hours of the night or in the wee hours of the morning.

    You're tired, you've been smelly, you're on a night shift, probably one of many that you've done. And you look out. You'd see your colleagues picking up waste and trash on the streets then you probably would see a whole bunch of other people. You would probably see the bartenders leaving their shops and bars. You would probably see other street cleaners. You would see police, ambulance personnel, security staff. Being on a few of those garbage trucks in Sydney, Dubai, in Singapore, in London, luckily as a pretend night shift worker studying the logistics of waste. And I remember thinking, wow, there's a lot of people working at 3:00 AM.

    Shelby Bassett:

    Cities after Dark: A Global View of Urban Night, a podcast series from Connected Cities at the University of Melbourne. I'm your host, Shelby Bassett.

    Michele Acuto: and I'm Michele Acuto. I'm the Director of Connected Cities.

    Shelby Bassett: Tonight, we look at the people who keep cities going: nighttime workers.

    Michele Acuto:

    And it's a lot of workers! The production of the nighttime economies is really rarely talked about. What we tend to talk about is the party-goers and the club-goers, and the people that consume those services, and we very, very fast forget the hundreds of thousands of people that keep the night ticking. How do they do it? How many do it? How do they get to the night shift? You don't really need to be on a garbage truck to see that. Just look outside of your windows, or peer outside of your restaurant from time to time.

    Shelby Bassett: So you said night workers keep cities ticking. What do you mean?

    Michele Acuto:

    We imagined nights work and night shifts to be about being a bartender or being a restaurant waiter. And that's very true, but actually, the majority of night workers are nurses and health practitioners and they are logistics workers, driving trucks to supermarkets to restock them, or as we started, nighttime waste managers. So it's very much about keeping the streets clean, keeping the supermarket stocked, fixing things that have broken.

    Shelby Bassett: So are night workers only there to service the day workers?

    Michele Acuto:

    Well, many are, but not only in the service of the daytime. It's an economy of its own as well. If you think about it, the waste management industry is a $430 billion reality, and there's a lot of 24-hour activities that are parts of systems that require nighttime shifts, with hundreds of thousands of nurses and logistics workers. And at the same time, does a lot of night systems that have been exponentially growing, like delivery and ride share, that are designed predominantly for the nighttime. It's quite a lot of people- it is 15 million Americans, one in nine Australians. Let's not just count them as daytime service people.

    Shelby Bassett:

    If you heard our last episode, you'll remember, we talked about how the night is a blind spot in the structure of our 24 hours. Nighttime is often forgotten. This means these people who work at night are inadvertently excluded.

    Michele Acuto:

    Absolutely, and excluded from what actually matters. There are big issues with how we allow night shift workers to actually do their job. There is still too little emphasis in policies, and plans, and governance of cities and of states, and we actually have a lot of science about this. We know a lot about how night shifts are connected to a higher risk of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, stress, heart disease, even linked to cancer. And these are mostly low paying precarious jobs, mostly taken up by people that don't come from those places. And this is not just a store of developed countries, but in factor also in the global South where the number of nighttime shift workers increases even further if you account for the informal sector.

    Shelby Bassett:

    Yeah, exactly. This particularly affects those who are already marginalized during the day like migrant workers.

    Julius-Cezar MacQuarie:

    Somewhere between 18% and 24%, between the sectors, you have foreign-born workers that support this London evening and nighttime economy. And that's one of the reasons why migrants matter for the nighttime economy because you would find that night work is mostly done by migrants.

    Shelby Bassett: I spoke to J.C. MacQuarie, a nocturnal anthropologist at the Central European University.

    Julius-Cezar MacQuarie:

    The migrants work as subjectivities, not simply expressed through discourse, but in the bodily responses to a regime of discipline, that seeks to extract as much use from the labouring body as possible, leaving them exhausted and spent- the difference between those whose lives may be fostered and taken care of, and those disposable bodies who can be left in neglect and death. In terms of working at night, it's equally important to understand contemporary capitalism points out that labourers have caught up so much in these physical demands of their work, so much so that the forms of solidarities have become so fragile and secondary to the experience of being used up and spent by the physical labour. Migrant workers to not only pushed into this precarious work, but also experience a diminished sense of self-worth, a lack of respect and fairness, and an unfair allocation of resources and a lack of self-esteem, and this is magnified by several degrees when we talk about night workers.

    Shelby Bassett: Working at night can lead to different rhythms than those of daytime workers. This can be precarious.

    Julius-Cezar MacQuarie:

    Day workers, too, experience precarity in work, poverty, unstable income, secure jobs, which is what precarity is often framed as. But precarity of night work is overwhelmingly experienced by migrants because of these three aspects that cannot be disentangled. In terms of the impact and the experiences migrant night workers face, the most important ones are the physical dimension, where being up and alert at night is very difficult. The second aspect is of a social nature. They find it very difficult to socialize, not only within their family and friends, because the gatherings take place usually at night, but on a larger scale, participate in new sort of collective activity. So anything that means to collectively organize and defend their rights and improve their working conditions is out of the question because they are so spent on that physical labour on sleepless nights. Because of their working conditions, which are very demanding, because they work on the opposite rhythms and times to regulate this, they cannot engage with this authority- say cities' authorities- managing sites' authorities, and therefore, it's difficult for them to progress.

    Shelby Bassett: Of course, we shouldn't pigeonhole migrants into being only workers. Su-Jan Yeo is a lecturer at the University of British Columbia.

    Su-Jan Yeo: I'm currently joining you from UBC Vancouver, located on the traditional ancestral and unseated territory of the Musqueam people.

    Shelby Bassett: She told me about her nighttime research in Singapore. There, she saw that the night can be a social good for migrant workers.

    Su-Jan Yeo:

    Sunday, in Little India, is buzzing with a mix of patrons. You have locals who do their shopping and the [inaudible] as well, tourists, and on top of that, migrant workers. Their embodiment of informal practices might, to some, be jarring, because again, there are socio-cultural norms that dictate what some might deem to be appropriate or inappropriate, or acceptable and non-acceptable. The informal practices of South Asian male migrant workers in Little India- there is a specificity to it. And that includes activities like sitting on the curbside, socializing in groups, large groups on the curbside, reading the newspaper while standing and occupying, blocking, perhaps the sidewalk. It includes spontaneous games. Carrom, for example, is one popular game that just springs up in the alleyway. So, when you recognize that night scapes like that found in Little India is more than just about economics, there is a social good to it because, for South Asian male migrant workers, it is a place to find kinship, a place to find rest and respite away from the work-life. And it allows them to develop a routine, when in fact, their time in Singapore is very transient.

    Shelby Bassett:

    Night has a way of enabling people to reimagine and repurpose spaces, often not for economic benefit, but for social benefit. I talked about this with Emilia Smeds from University College of London.

    Emilia Smeds:

    If you consider a place like Brixton in London, which has been rapidly gentrified as a result of the dynamics of London's housing market. Now it's a big hub for nightlife, people going out and so on. But to what extent is the public space in Brixton catering to a broad cross-section of people who have lived there for a long time, as well as people who want to enjoy the most recent facilities, and really has that experience of all those public spaces in Brixton's town centre, which is really vibrant at night? But how has that kind of changed over time, the uses and the meanings of some of those places and to people?

    Michele Acuto:

    I know that spot. That's where I used to take the 432 bus for my commute back in my late research nights in London, and it's pretty packed with workers and migrants leaving in the South of the city. And I think it brings up the question of where do the night shift workers go? How do they get to their shift? How complex is a commute for a nurse, or for a shop worker? Moving people at night is a critical part of the conversation in night shifts. And that's definitely something that Emilia and her colleague, Jenny McArthur, also from University College London, have thought a lot about

    Jenny McArthur:

    When we think about moving at night, often there can be a bias towards certain kinds of travellers or travel needs. And what we saw in London was that when their nighttime economy agenda was launched a couple of years ago, we look back to the history of where this idea comes from. It came from the recognition that the nightlife venues in London were really struggling because the property prices sort of still is extremely high. When they tracked the numbers of nightlife venues that were available, they were dropping. That was actually the trigger for this policy, and so then they had a big focus on the nighttime economy and trying to support that, and one of the ways of doing that was to extend the Tube to have services during the night.

    Now, of course, nightlife venues do have a really important role in the urban economy. But when we went from that particular issue to the nighttime economy, more broadly, the focus was heavily biased towards helping people who had gone to nighttime venues to get around the city and to get home at night and overlooked that when we look at the nighttime economy, you have these huge populations of people working in logistics and healthcare, a huge variety of functions, often essential services. They've always had to travel at night, and they haven't often had very good quality services. The key insight from that research we found was that when you talk about the night-time economy and mobility at night, you can't just focus on people who are out to consume and out for leisure. Those activities are important, but the workers who are travelling, who might have a regular schedule, who are shift workers, their needs are so important, and it's very rare to find, in cities across the world, really good examples of where they've catered for that in their nighttime travel planning.

    Emilia Smeds:

    Yeah, that's right. That was a really interesting piece of research that kind of opened up a whole new perspective on the unequal opportunities and how the nighttime can be a space that is really quite important, or quite dominated, by people who may be marginalized in different ways. Either that or more subversive activities, I guess. But there is a lot of evidence across the board beyond the nighttime workers that we looked at that there is really inequitable opportunities for enjoying the nightlife, in the case of people of colour and accessing safe, pedestrian, well-lit sidewalks, different types of- maybe it can even extend to taxi services or whatever different types of services, for low-income people, women. And again, going back to people of colour, obviously, there's a lot of racial policing of nighttime space, issues with some people who work in the nightlife industry like bouncers and things like that. The daytime is sort of the dominant hour of society, where we plan for white men, and I guess that extends to the nighttime as well, but the differences between planning and needs is perhaps even more stark.

    Shelby Bassett: This sounds like we need to rethink how we move in cities at night.

    Jenny McArthur:

    The main challenge is that there isn't actually a very good understanding of what people need, and their travel patterns, and what travelling for. So I think there's a real risk of thinking about nighttime transport is just sort of an extension of the daytime, and just a matter of having more services.

    Now, while the services are important, I think that there's a risk that we just try and sort of duplicate daytime transport for the night, and not appreciating the slightly more complex needs of people travelling to and from work. Do they have, for example, caring responsibilities, do they have to do some shopping or something on the way to work or, or on the way home, do they have different concerns around safety, around the reliability of getting to work on time- it's much more complex. I think the key challenge is just a lack of understanding. A lot more research needs to be done to understand that properly, and the other side of that is that the night time activity and mobility for cities is such a key part of making it function. But again, one of the key challenges is that a lot of the infrastructure is just not designed or planned to really cater for that and really appreciate the essential role of those activities at night.

    Emilia Smeds:

    From the perspective of the kind of New Mobilities Paradigm laid out by people like John Urry, Mimi Sheller, and Tim Cresswell, I actually think it's more about people moving. So, perhaps not about the government planning, about moving people, and how people are to be moved around, but more about individual bodies and people moving, and it might include things like dwelling in public spaces, walking, skateboarding- I don't know. Some people extend mobility at night to all types of bodily movement, like enjoying nightlife, dancing, et cetera.

    So, I think that perspective on mobility might be quite relevant to faculties of the built environment like the Melbourne School of Design, which actually considers the design of urban space across a really wide range of scales. So it might be from an individual building, how people use the building at night, to public spaces, maybe the street, or the urban morphology at a greater scale- things like defensible space and the design of housing, for example, which is related to safety, and so quite related to the nighttime. I think that a broader lens is quite useful. The thinking just in terms of this thing of who moves the furthest, the fastest, the most often, what are the kinds of inequalities or differences in how we move at night? How safe do we feel? Those are some good questions to ask, to start unpacking the politics of that.

    Michele Acuto:

    The way to attend to the needs of those workers that move at night might be simple. We need to listen. We need to listen to the workers that operate in the background of those who consumed the night. We need to amplify the voices of the often-silenced heroes of maintenance and healthcare into the policy and politics that shape the nighttime.

    Shelby Bassett:

    This has been a really valuable conversation. We spend this episode talking about workers, but a really important part about working is also equity and access. And that's something that we'll be covering in our next episode, The Rights of the Night.

    Michele Acuto:

    A big thank you to Julia-Cezar MacQuarie, Emilia Smeds, Jenny McArthur, Su-Jan Yeo, and of course, my wonderful co-host, Shelby Basset.

    Shelby Bassett:

    You can find more information about the work of our lab and the researchers in this podcast, in our show notes, and you can join the conversation on Twitter using #citiesafterdark.

    Connected Cities acknowledges the indigenous peoples of the lands upon which we work and meet to create this podcast. For us at the University of Melbourne, we pay our respects to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. Wherever in the world, you're listening to this, we invite you to pause and consider the traditional owners of the land upon which you stand.

Links and references

Join the conversation on Twitter using #CitiesAfterDark

Julius-Cezar MacQuarie, nocturnal anthropologist at Central European University

Su-Jan Yeo, lecturer in the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) at University of British Columbia

Emilia Smeds, PhD Candidate at University College London

Jenny McArthur, Lecturer in Urban Infrastructure and Policy at Urban Innovation and Policy Lab and University College London Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (UCL STEaPP)

Smeds, E., Robin, E. & McArthur, J. (2020). Night-time mobilities and (in)justice in London: Constructing mobile subjects and the politics of difference in policy-making. Journal of Transport Geography, 82.

Smeds, E., Robin, E. & McArthur, J. (2017). Equitable transport provision for night-time workers in 24-hour London.

Sheller, M. & Urry, J. (2006). The New Mobilities Paradigm. Environment and Planning A. 38. 207-226. 10.1068/a37268.


Co-hosted by Michele Acuto and Shelby Bassett

Written by Shelby Bassett and Kate Murray

Sound Design by Bec Fary

Produced by Kate Murray

Special thanks to Andreina Seijas and Jennifer Dam

This episode includes Little India, Singapore sounds downloaded from

More Information

Kate Murray

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