June 19, 2020

Dignity of all labour

“You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

We live in a society where we esteem some jobs more highly than others. So much so that somebody thought of polling the public on their perception of essential and non-essential jobs. Besides being a question that we shouldn’t even be asking, I think it’s also important that we recognise the dignity of all kinds of labour.

Growing up, our culture influences us to aim for certain jobs and not others. Often, such well-intentioned advice is based on practical reasons. Certain jobs pay higher and thus make them more desirable. Other professions simply have a level of prestige attached to them based on their nature of work.

That is not to say that we should all be paid equally. That will just distort our reality. And make us feel self-entitled to rewards that we have not worked hard for. The entrepreneur that created thousands of jobs for many should be rewarded more than one who doesn’t create as many jobs for others.

The problem is that we value the work of the entrepreneur, the professionals, and those higher up an organisation’s hierarchy, at the expense of those at the bottom. The work of many people, who actually help organisations run on a day-to-day basis, are not valued. They might even be looked down upon.

In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s time, many oppressed workers were receiving part-time wages for full-time work. In other words, they could not afford a decent life for themselves and their families despite working really hard. But in many Asian societies, it’s not just the issue of low wages for certain jobs in society. It’s also the culture of shunning certain areas of work. It could be for practical reasons, pride, or the prestige that comes with certain types of work.

It’s one thing for wages to increase without letting the increase in living costs to outpace it. Yes, wages should increase for many who are struggling to make ends meet (and who are willing to work hard). But it’s another thing for us to keep perpetuating the culture of looking down on some jobs. Until we stop telling our children to ‘study hard, if not you will end up being a [you can complete this yourself]’, it is hard to get rid of this culture.

All labour has dignity. And until we recognise that the very jobs we shun are filled by human beings who are equally as worthy as us, we will not recognise the dignity of their labour.

You might not be in a position to lobby/fight for/decide to increase the real wages of the low-income. But you certainly can stop perpetuating the belief that some jobs should be shunned. This belief can stop at our generation. It doesn’t have to carry on to the next.

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