Dirty Work

Matthew Fitzgerald asks: How can we give dignity and worth to those who do invisible but necessary work that no one else wants to do?

We have all worked jobs that we’ve disliked.
I once cleared out a garden bed littered with used needles.
It wasn’t a task others wanted.
Unsavoury, unsafe, or just plain dirty: work of this sort has always been with us.

The Middle Ages offers a veritable array of odious jobs: a gravedigger during the Bubonic plague, say; or a “gong farmer,” responsible for digging out and removing human excrement from privies and permitted to only work at night.

Who then does the repellent work today? Journalist Eyal Press suggests it could be those in garment factories, abattoirs, and the gig economy – like Facebook’s army of digital regulators who intercept explicit content – that do the “low-status jobs of last resort.”

Most troubling, this work is invisible to us – hidden from sight. Yet remove the veil of ignorance and ask, “how is it that we get our chicken?” or, “who ensures some semblance of sanity is maintained on social media platforms?” and the mind begins to whirl.

The work may be morally problematic, but it is necessary – at least while we maintain society’s status quo of rabid consumption, both material and digital.

It occurs to me that Jesus was often charged with keeping poor company – tax collectors and “sinners”. People, often, involved in the dirty work of first-century Roman Palestine. Ignored and despised by society, but visible to him. He saw them, he went to them, he made their worth visible to themselves and to others.

What dirty work should we be pausing and giving attention to, in the midst of our frenetic lives? How may we give dignity and worth to those who otherwise go unseen?