Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality By Eyal Press Head of Zeus

Some jobs remain hidden in the shadows, looked down upon by much of society and generally only performed by those who have few other choices. Among the jobs considered ‘dirty work’ are slaughterh­ouse workers, prison guards and those involved in drone strike warfare and offshore oil. Yet the pandemic has changed how we view many of these jobs; while many are still seen as unsavoury, some are now classified as ‘essential work’.

In his latest, deeply reported book, Eyal Press focuses on the emotional toil of ‘dirty work’, the mental damage caused by days spent butchering and gutting animal carcasses, of being part of distant, calculated killings, or of watching abuses and casual sadism in prisons without feeling able to intervene.

Press points out that while society may look down on these jobs and criticise their excesses, we have given our tacit approval either by turning a blind eye or continuing to consume the products made – enjoying the benefits without having to get our own hands dirty.

The book has a distinctly US focus, but the realities within are true – to varying degrees – across much of the world. The stories told in Dirty Work are painful; of a prison psychologi­st witnessing almost daily brutality administer­ed by guards, but feeling unable to speak out without putting themself in danger; of drone analysts watching death rained down from above after trying to determine if distant figures are enemy combatants; and of slaughterh­ouse workers surrounded by blood and guts, and being nuzzled affectiona­tely by pigs, only to have to kill them moments later.

Many of these workers grow to blame themselves for the harms they’ve witnessed or been involved in. The incarcerat­ion of the mentally ill is particular­ly troubling, and Press devotes considerab­le time to interviewi­ng those who’ve spent years working in the US prison system, who’ve witnessed firsthand the disconnect between how the mentally ill should be treated and how they actually are. Violence is endemic.

It’s easy to view these ‘dirty’ jobs with disdain, without thinking of the conditions that led many of the workers to take them, or of how they themselves see what they do. In many cases, the physical and mental toll they take is far more costly than the salaries they earn.

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