Unskilled labour is one of those terms which people often absorb from pundits or books without thinking. Its worth saying out loud that unskilled labour is labour which is common, or labour which employers can easily replace. It does not mean ignorant, or uneducated, or that anyone from a different society could do it.
In an agrarian society, jobs which require deep knowledge of using hand tools, tending plants and animals, spinning and weaving, and efficiently doing heavy manual labour are unskilled. In societies with universal education, jobs which require reading, writing, and arithmetic are unskilled. It takes years of practice to acquire these skills, but they don’t give better wages than jobs which require pure muscle power or basic spoken language, because too many workers already have them. (For example, someone who bags groceries at a Canadian supermarket earns about as much as someone who enters information from handwritten forms into a computer).
Pay for sessional instructors / adjunct professors is about minimum wage despite the lack of job security. This is because there are many more people with a PhD than stable jobs which require a PhD, so some are willing to take a job on bad terms to keep a connection to a university and get work experience which might lead to one of those coveted tenure-track jobs. Anyone who has done a manual labour job such as tree planting finds that it takes at least a summer to catch up with the experienced workers. But tree planting is unskilled labour, because any healthy young person can do them, so if one batch of workers asks for better terms, its easy to hire another batch.
We tend to forget how hard we worked to learn things like reading and writing. And we rarely see the societies where baby girls are given a spindle as early as they can sit up. So we often overlook what goes in to ‘unskilled’ jobs.
If you are a worker who uses the term ‘unskilled labour’, you might want to think why you use a term from the boss’ perspective. And when you read news magazines, you might also want to think about whose side they are on in disputes between workers and bosses. It is odd that newspapers traditionally have a business and investment section, not a labour section! In the 20th century, most newspaper readers were workers not rentiers (although that has probably changed).
Further Reading: Poul Anderson, “The Man who Came Early” (1956) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Came_Early
(scheduled 5 February 2023)