Why Are Some Workers Stuck in Dirty Jobs?

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Clara Ferreira Marques: Your new book, “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America”, delves into jobs our society leans on but doesn’t want to acknowledge. Say, in the U.S. drone warfare program, the prison system, on border patrol or on the slaughterhouse floor, to take some of the examples you draw on. We’ve all heard of “essential” workers, nurses or delivery drivers — but you are describing something different, more marginalized and invisible. What is “dirty work?”

Eyal Press, author, “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America:”  These are jobs seen as morally compromised by much of society but tacitly condoned, because they play a very important role in the prevailing social order and, indeed, in the American way of life.

Consider that the United States has the world’s largest prison system. Someone has got to work in it, and a lot of people do. Critics of mass incarceration would say these jobs aren’t essential at all and should be eliminated, and some people would feel the same way about drone operators who conduct targeted assassinations. But jails and prisons are the largest mental health institutions in many states, so, as much as critics would say they are not essential, that’s the way America handles a problem that could be addressed much more humanely – namely, by building an adequate public mental health system.

In the case of the drone program, America has been fighting never-ending wars and one of the ways that we have chosen to transition from these expensive, burdensome foreign interventions is through the drone program, whereby America does not put its own soldiers at risk. 

CFM: Your previous book, “Beautiful Souls,” also dealt with people making uncomfortable decisions, but in the context of moral courage. Were you trying to tackle the less palatable choices here?

EP: My earlier book was about what it takes to stand by your principles when you could do the convenient, unjust thing. I traveled to the Balkans, to Switzerland, and in my research I kept coming across people who were not so principled. I thought more and more about those people, because I felt both an impulse to judge them and an uncomfortable identification with them — how differently would I have acted? 

So this time I wrote about people who go along as accomplices or as perpetrators. But I don’t just view them in that light, because this is also about who ends up in those roles in the United States today. These jobs and these compromises are not equally distributed: they tend to fall disproportionately to people with fewer choices and opportunities. 

I chose sectors that were not marginal to American life – drones, for example, but also industrial slaughterhouses where much of the chicken, pork and beef that Americans consume is processed. These people are socially invisible and yet no one would say they don’t matter. They keep meat cheap and the country fed. 

CFM:  How does this happen? Is it just our hunger, as a society, for cheap chicken and affordable energy?

EP: The easy explanation is that it is profitable. That is part of the story and it is part of my book, whether it is slaughterhouses or prisons, where people talk about privatization. The mental health system of the prison I focused on in Florida was run by a private company, and indeed the entire health and mental health system in Florida’s prison network — the third-largest in the country — was contracted out, so this was business.

But it’s too easy to limit to that. 

The category of “dirty work” comes from a sociologist named Everett Hughes, who posited that it meant not just an unpleasant job, which is the colloquial meaning, but an unethical activity that had an “unconscious mandate” from society. In other words, people might say that they object or they don’t explicitly assent, but they also find a way not to pay too much attention and to let it go on in the shadows.

When we start to think of it that way, it doesn’t just implicate the big companies who profit from this, it also implicates voters, it implicates the apathetic public that clicks on something else when a disturbing story that might make them feel implicated comes up on screen. In that sense, the book is not just about these workers, it really is about all of us.

CFM: That raises the question of inequality underpinning all of this, because your book is not just about these morally troubling jobs, it’s also about the unequal choices that get people there and leave them stuck — the unfairly distributed moral injury.

EP: There’s a massive wealth gap in the United States, but there’s also a moral inequality that reinforces the economic kind. You have these stigmatized and, in many cases defiling, jobs that end up being delegated to people with fewer opportunities. Who works on the floor of the slaughterhouse? It’s immigrants, exploited, who accept conditions that many native-born Americans don’t tolerate— like fast line speeds that cause huge rates of physical injury, or being denied bathroom breaks. It’s an incredible assault on one’s dignity.

When I write about prisons, I write about a woman in Florida named Harriet Krzykowski, who gets a prison job after the Great Recession and makes $12 an hour. An elite psychiatrist would not do that job, but Harriet needed a job and she took the one she could find. She soon starts to witness abuse she finds shocking — prisoners denied meals, locked in scalding showers — and yet she and the others on the mental health staff don’t report what’s happening because they want to keep their jobs and feel beholden to security. People are in these compromised situations, they need their jobs.

CFM: Does that mean these are not real choices, in your view?

EP: I think people have choices, but they are asymmetric. There’s the “pressure of economic necessity,” a phrase from the political philosopher Michael Sandel, who writes in his book “Justice” about the question of America’s military. Most Americans would find it wrong if the rich could just hire the working class to fight their wars for them. That seems unfair — but it is, in a sense, the system we have. We have people in depressed and dying towns who, to travel, to get an education, to get an opportunity, join the military.

So there are choices, but the choices are made under duress.

CFM: And yet we, the public, tend to condemn the workers, not the wider system.

EP: There is inequality of blame. When abuse is uncovered, as in the prison I wrote about, what typically happens is the lowest-ranking people, who have dirtied their hands, are held accountable. They were the ones doing it.

But the lowest ranking people didn’t always do it. Even if they did, what about the assistant warden, and the warden, and the head of the department of corrections and the person ultimately responsible for that department, namely the governor? The governor of Florida at the time of the torture I write about was Rick Scott, a big proponent of privatizing prisons who cut the staff budget of prisons, making the work more stressful and difficult. Scott, who is now a senator, did not pay a price. 

One of the reasons that it is tempting to place the blame low down is that we don’t want to see our role in it, our role as voters, as the people who elect politicians. Florida has the third-largest prison system but spent the second-least, per capita, on mental health. It’s not a mystery that abuses resulted from this. This money could be spent at the front end, in community health services, and fewer people would be cycling through prisons and jails. But the political will to achieve that isn’t there, so the easy story is a mug shot of the cruel prison guard.

CFM: You don’t really get too deep into morally questionable white-collar jobs. What makes those different?

EP: They don’t fit my definition of dirty work. It’s not that they can’t experience moral injury — I wrote about a woman named Laura Nolan who was working on a project that she found out was to be used by the Defense Department to sharpen the video footage of drones. She has strong views and wanted no part in it. She was anxious, feeling some guilt.

But one of the big differences is that it is much easier to exit the situation if you are a highly skilled white-collar worker. Moreover, one of the core aspects of dirty work is that it stigmatizes the people who do it, causing them to feel devalued. That doesn’t happen to bankers who earn lavish bonuses. Money gives people power and material success has a positive moral valence in our culture. To be stigmatized one has to lack that.

CFM: Consumers have made a difference before — with child labor, for instance. Do you think awareness can go some way towards exposing some of this? Can we be convinced to exercise our collective responsibility? 

EP: A lot of Americans are disgusted by and have growing awareness about the conditions in industrial slaughterhouses. What you have is a demand for labels like “humanely raised” to be placed on meat. But I suggest in the book that virtuous consumption has limits. The chicken may be humanely raised, but what happens to the workers? The label doesn’t say “humanely treated workers.” I think we need a deeper public reckoning about the kinds of dirty work that we allow to have done in our name.

Dirty work is not an immutable force. In fact, in every sector I write about, popular attitudes and awareness have changed. There’s more awareness of climate, more awareness of mass incarceration and of its impact on poor and Black Americans. But I don’t think we’re quite there. I wrote “Dirty Work” because I wanted to challenge how people saw Harriet and the guards, and to pull the reader into their world. They are in fact our agents, working in our name. And if that’s troubling to you, we need to do something about it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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