There’s a lot in the news right now about work: supply chain issues, fights over minimum wage, unions, strikes, and of course, the worker shortage. None of these are truly new issues, but the pandemic has exacerbated them all. And to get at the heart of these issues, you need to understand work culture in the US on a deeper level. It’s not all briefcases and meetings; sometimes, work means doing jobs that are looked down upon, but are deeply necessarily for society’s survival. I added Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America by Eyal Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) to my TBR as soon as I learned about it, but a segment about the book on NPR a a few days later really had me looking forward to reading it. And I wasn’t disappointed, though this is by no means an easy or comfortable read.
Think of a job you would never want to do. A scary job, a dangerous job, maybe one that turns your stomach. How much would you have to be paid in order to perform that job? How much do you think the people who perform it are paid, and do you think they’re afforded the respect they deserve? What do you think it costs them on a personal level to work that job? Eyal Press takes a look at some of the jobs and industries that are lowest on the proverbial totem pole in America- some that might immediately come to mind, such as prison guard and slaughterhouse workers- and some that probably didn’t, like the members of the military responsible for drone strikes, and oil rig workers. These jobs are highly underpaid, often leave deep scars on the psyche of those are employed in these industries, and aren’t often discussed in polite society, because we’d rather forget that such dirty work is performed in our name, and that we benefit from so much suffering.
Eyal Press interviews workers in each other these industries, human beings who suffer because of the jobs they often had little choice but to take (this is one of the many examples of inequality in the book; these industries are often located in rural, poverty-stricken areas where survival comes before morals, which ends up costing us all). The suffering is immense, and we all bear guilt for it; it’s just that so many of us choose to ignore it. Dirty Work will have you reexamining your views on class, work, and inequality in America.
This was an extremely emotionally difficult read. It broke my heart multiple times to read about how easily our society dismisses suffering and how ready we are to use people until they’re broken and then throw them away entirely, without a second thought to what they need or how to ease their pain. Disabled from work that we benefit from? Too bad for you, go somewhere I can’t see you and don’t have to think about it anymore, is the general attitude. Mentally unwell because of the killing you did in America’s name in the military? Stop talking about it; our thanks for your service should be all the balm you need. America’s attitude of ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ is on full display in this book, because America just doesn’t do anything for the Americans who are harmed by it.
It took me almost a week to get through this book, because I kept having to stop reading in order to take a mental break. The problem, Eyal Press reminds us, is systemic, and individual acts aren’t going to make much difference at all. It’s going to take the actions of the majority of us, loud, constant voices screaming that this isn’t right and demanding change, for conditions to better. I don’t know that we have it in us, to be honest; far too many of us are happily willing to accept that others suffer and sometimes die so we can have things like cheap meat. I don’t think we’re all that good at deep self-examination and reflection as a society, as this pandemic has emphasized.
This is an impressive, hard-hitting book that should shock a reader into deep contemplation, and will hopefully help you rethink what you may have learned before about the kind of work that you may not like to think about, but that you definitely benefit from, or that is done in your name. It’s a tough, tough read, but it’s a necessary one, and I hope it sparks a national conversation about the suffering we’re willing to tolerate, and why.