‘Dirty Work’ is a Sobering Reminder of What Lurks in the Economic Shadows

Commercial butchering, oil drilling, being a guard at a prison—they’re tough jobs but someone’s got to do them. But in the case of Dirty Work, author Eyal Press argues that the social stigma against these types of work means we collectively don’t have to consider the cost or the moral weight that gets placed on the people we pay far too little to do them. 

The first and largest single section of the book is dedicated to prison guards and mental health professionals working at prisons. Both jobs require being in close contact with prisoners who have often committed serious crimes, and many who are suffering from mental illness that may or may not be adequately diagnosed or treated. Prison guards typically lack the respect afforded to those in other public service professions, such as firefighting and law enforcement. The us-vs-them mentality can foster a culture of violence for even the most dedicated guards. The counselors are dedicated, too, but they can lack resources or support—particularly if they notice or report abuse happening to the prisoners. In the case of one counselor, Harriet, when she made a report of one guard committing violence against a prisoner, she found herself abandoned by all the guards in her part of the prison. All of this is made worse, Press argues, by the fact that our prison systems have largely become de facto asylums for those with mental illness. Out of sight, out of mind.

That same mentality applies to workers at places like poultry farms and slaughterhouses, where their dangerous and underpaid work means we can get our deskinned, deboned chicken breasts in cheery and sterile-looking containers that hide the violence and exposure to viscera that came earlier in the process (for more on this, check out this podcast episode from Marketplace). We haven’t gotten so very far from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as we’d like to think, argues Press; even though we now care more about the cleanliness of plants and the quality of life of animals, workers are still flagrantly mistreated. And although the working conditions are better on oil rigs and for military drone operators, says Press, the moral weight of the work those employees do can change them as people in ways that don’t tend to engender sympathy because of the type of work they do. Their work is necessary, but also distasteful.

The cover of Eyal Press's book Dirty Work, featuring black-and-white images of, at top, a worker jogging after an airplane leaving a hangar, and at bottom, what appear to be soldiers standing at attention. The title appears in white against a bold orange block in the middle.

This book was first published in the summer of 2021, which means it was well underway before the pandemic hit. Press addresses this, it seems, where possible—how precautions were implemented (or ignored) with the rise of the virus, how the threat of missed paychecks from having to shut down the line increased workers’ desperation—though I’m curious what a “post”-covid update would say given workers making more demands in some sectors. Press also addresses the pandemic in the epilogue in how medical professionals spoke out about the difficulties the pandemic brought to them: how to decide who gets to live or die by the allocation of limited resources, back-breaking hours and working conditions, the fear for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones by the exposure they experienced daily at work, and the constant proximity to death or something close to it. Those concerns are all valid and the moral weight they create is a burden on those doctors and nurses, no question, says Press, but it’s not dirty work. People, by and large, respect doctors and nurses. There is high social status associated with doctors and nurses that a line worker at a chicken farm could never dream of.

Social status and economic mobility are really at the heart of Dirty Work. Press waits until the end to discuss the inverse, but it is effective when it comes. More than once during the late 2010s, Google workers found out about projects within the tech giant that they personally found unsavory, and spoke up in protest. Sometimes, when the response was unsatisfactory, they quit. While Press doesn’t argue against their principled stance, there is a glaring difference between those workers and so many of the others detailed previously. The workers from Google, in all their white-collar glory, typically had the education and financial cushion to allow them to walk away from a job they disagreed with (something that we’re seeing in one very bizarre and quickly deteriorating case study this week). Someone who enlisted and ended up flying drones, or who took the job of prison guard or meat slaughterer because it was the only gig around that paid more than minimum wage, doesn’t have that luxury.

Dirty Work isn’t anti-capitalist any more than it is pro-any other economic model, and it is less accusatory than it is sobering—a revealing reminder that convenience too often carries a cost we keep hidden, but need to be more thoughtful about to protect workers and community members across the economic scale.

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