After reading this article on the New York Times about The Brutal Life of Sanitation Workers and watching Top 10 Most Disgusting Jobs, it got me thinking about why workers who have such gross jobs get such little respect. Whether in their pay, the amount of social recognition and maybe even pride they take in their own job, it can be pretty low.
But given how hard these workers have it, why is it like this? I thought I’d just offer some speculation on this matter. I’m not someone who has worked anything like cleaning a crime scene or a sanitation worker, but I think there’s some universal themes we can see in all forms of work and how they are generally devalued in society.
For example, much of retail work is deemed as “menial” and “servile” because of its relation to the public (they’re always right) and having to do whatever bosses say. Therefore people tend to think the job is easy or not really worth paying much attention to because it doesn’t require a lot of thought. Thought is often what people say is what differentiates us from being primates or animals more generally, which is to say what makes us human.
So, to some extent, I think there’s an inherent dehumanization and marginalization of people who work in retail and especially people who are in sectors where they must act servile to everyone around them. To simply take orders, execute them and (ideally) never question them is not exactly the pinnacle of intelligence.
And so this sort of labor is devalued relative to how much money you may make in the IT industry ($20 an hour as opposed to $9 for example). It’s devalued relative to even being a manager in the retail industry because at leas then you are the one giving the orders to others and have to use your brain and free will a lot more. This garners more respect.
Even though the orders you are giving to others often can’t be ignored or disobeyed. And even though the amount of money you make is barely anymore (in many situations) than you would as a normal employee. Added to that is the fact that even most managers have to usually be just as servile to the public most of the time but can choose not to be.
Still, because there is this aura of superiority people either go surface level or just don’t want to think about it as much. If there’s a problem then the customer immediately wants to speak to a manager and never want a lowly employee to resolve it. I doubt a lot of these biases are explicit and I could be stretching the truth, but for as long as I’ve worked in retail, and for as much as society makes bosses look superior, I don’t think I’m too far off at least.
In any case, I think a lot of these things can be applied to people who do sanitation. People who are maids (and we may see this in the upcoming chapter review of Working) and house cleaners are literally seen as servants in many cases and even cast in those roles by rich folks. In this case you’re only servile to one person (or that person and whomever else they want if they live with others/have guests over) but that servility is at a much higher level.
And the level of menial for the job is considered much higher. Perhaps it’s a symbolic interaction with the dirt and with everything dirty. Maybe people just associate taking out the trash, cleaning houses, dealing with messes as somehow beneath them. I know I usually don’t revel in dealing with the trash or taking it out, I try not to think about it.
Even today, I said “even maids” shouldn’t be treated a certain way and caught myself immediately dehumanizing the good work that maids and house cleaners do for folks, especially hotels via room service. We all have this hierarchy of thoughts and preferences that folks who clean things simply don’t fall into very neatly.
And that part about not wanting to think about taking out the trash? That’s exactly how we act with the people who take out the garbage, or the people who are in the sewers trying to unclog pipes. We don’t want to know how the proverbial sausage is being made, we just want it and we want it to be done as seamlessly as possible.
That way we’ll never have to think about it. And so when abuses of sanitation workers happen when it turns out they have grotesque working conditions, injuries, paychecks that don’t go far enough and more, most of society could care less. And look, I’m not saying all of this to say we’re all bad for not wanting to think about the sewer workers.
I don’t think any of this inherently makes us bad people. But it can lead us to judge people harshly for their occupations or, perhaps even worse, ignore or even applaud when they face issues with their bosses. People can easily reason that they quite literally took a shit job so they deserve whatever they get. But that’s not how that works.
People deserve our sympathy and more importantly our solidarity when they are in dire straits. Not just because of the work they do in the day to day but because of the kinds of people they are and how they treat others. I’ve got a lot of respect for folks who do the dirty thankless work because it’s not going to be thanked anytime soon.
So for those who do the work that the rest of us would rather not think about, thanks.
I know that thanks is hardly enough and I know it’s not enough to simply recognize a problem and point out that it’s there but it’s a start and hopefully in this case, it’s a good start.
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