Dirty Jobs, but Never Done Dirt Cheap

The world is truly full of overlooked and underpaid laborers.
Photo: Housekeeping Cart

This is a story as old as human community, and yet it’s notable how little it’s changed. The ugliest, dirtiest, the most physically demanding and unpleasant tasks, the ones that no one in his or her right mind would usually choose to do, let alone without any recognition or reasonable pay, these jobs don’t cease to exist because nobody likes them. They simply get done by people who have no other choice. And do we thank them for it? Do we give them public honor and paychecks commensurate with the knowledge and patience and back-breaking effort and yes, specialized skills that are required of them?

You know the answer. In this country, we spend more time and energy on vilifying the working poor as nuisances and a weight around the necks of their higher-taxpaying richer neighbors, at best. At worst, we accuse them of criminality, many of coming into the country illegally—which they may well have done—to snatch bread from the very lips of our own better educated and better protected children through their stealing jobs from the local citizenry. Which, of course, they rarely do, considering that neither we nor said children are willing and able to do without the jobs that the working poor do for us, let alone perform those tasks ourselves. Never mind that those we abhor for daring to come across the nation’s borders unseen are doing precisely what the vast majority of our own ancestors did, and out of the same desperation for survival, but now with the additional barrier of laws designed more out of fear and hatred than out of specific plans to better the safety and welfare of any of the parties involved.

If immigrants could remotely afford the risky business of taking a national day of “working poor flu,” the way that unionized workers go on strike or recognized organizations march in protest, just imagine what that day would look like across the United States. I don’t begin to think that there’s an easy solution to the problems of regulating this country, protecting individuals and the nation from the very real danger of criminal activity and the bane of individualism gone rogue. The latter being, in my opinion, a far larger risk to the rest of us from among native-born citizens who take their American privileges as the right to do as they please, even by force and against US governmental “interference” with their personal sovereignty. But I can’t believe that the draconian and targeted proposals many suggest these days are the right solution, either.

Let our internal renegades, our legal complainants against immigrants, and all foes of the “lazy” or “problematic” working poor themselves take up the labor and care required to ensure that every one of their fellow Americans has enough food to eat, education to navigate life and progress beyond restrictive ignorance, health care to prevent the spread of diseases and unnecessary pain or early death, and a safe, clean place to sleep without fear of exposure to the elements, destruction of their environment, or unfriendly intruders. Then I might start thinking we can narrow the gates to allow in only primly approved new neighbors able to contribute equally to the cause. Or would anybody out there like to see what happens on that imagined Flu Day, when all of the orderlies, cooks, construction workers, landscape maintenance crews, sanitation workers, child- and elder-caregivers, and all of their fellow underpaid workers lay down their tools and lie down on the job for even 24 hours?

I surely don’t know the solution to any, let alone all, of the problems that roll up into this one massive puzzle we have sitting on our doorstep. But I know that I will try to do better at giving proper respect and thanks, and a hand up when possible, to anyone who does what I can’t or won’t do myself. My life depends upon it.

17 thoughts on “Dirty Jobs, but Never Done Dirt Cheap

  1. ouch. … and LEAST of all, Please make sure you leave a healthy tip when you leave a room at a hotel!!! how much $ would be needed to get you to clean a stranger’s room? thanks for the exellent reminder and inspiration, as always Kathryn. 🙂 mikey

    • Not just cleaning a stranger’s room, but one who has no sense of ownership or responsibility and will do things in said rooms that they could and should never get away with anywhere else. UGH. Might as well be cleaning up the biohazardous waste in a hospital, because at least *there* your employers will assume you should be wearing protective gear and disposing of the waste safely. I’m glad you found the post thought-provoking, Mikey. Hope all’s well with you…I’ll pop over again as soon as I get home from the current jaunt!

  2. This is something. It’s exactly what my friend – the one I go back farthest with – and I were emailing about yesterday. She and I both watched our parents in their immigrant struggles. No, they didn’t have to take out anyone’s trash but their own and we had a safe, clean roof over our head, but our parents labored, and labored hard, all their life. My friend and I are different from each other. I am more the idealist and she the pragmatist. I nod to aphorisms like “Do what you love and never work a day in your life” and this is what she wrote last night:

    “From Steve Jobs: The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.

    I thought about this speech a lot. It didn’t make sense to me. There are many jobs that are necessary which people perform but don’t love like sanitation workers. So necessary. One time, when this speech was being played, I asked my husband, ‘this is not for people like us, right?’ He answered, “Yes, it’s not for people like us. It’s for people like him, and the Stanford graduates for whom this speech was for, who could have really done anything in life and have done well.”

    I dared pursue what I love, and if she and I could swap gifts she would probably monetize her blog so she can continue to feed her family. I’m the “starving artist” which I say to highlight the contrast between us though I am far from starving. Anyways, I took you on a tangent, dear K, into the world of idealism and pursuit of passions. But it was all to say you wrote my friend’s heart.

    Speaking of passion, love it here.

    • Many thanks, dear D. I think life requires both idealism and pragmatism, in different mixtures at different times. And I’m a believer in pursuing reward only through taking risk, no matter how risk-averse I happen to be by nature. So I, like you, have taken the beautifully supported step of being a happily “starving” artist rather than work at a soul-killing job anymore. Lucky, lucky me!

      I think what amazes me the most is that so many people, even those who *don’t* have the luxury of doing jobs they love, manage to claim their own dignity and even satisfaction in doing so-called dirty jobs well and honorably. And on their dedicated backs, I—we—live our lives. I am grateful for those who however unwillingly do such tasks to keep the world operating and a speck of food on their tables. I am even more grateful for those who do it with courage and compassion and generosity. What an astonishing thing.


    • Amen, amen. I am ashamed that so many of my countrymen/women loudly insult immigrants and rant about keeping them out of the country while blithely ignoring their own origins in immigration. Enough said.

  3. Well said and eloquently put. As children of first generation immigrants, I hate it when people say that the migrants are ‘stealing’ menial jobs from the locals. If they worked as hard and accepted the low pay, they’d get the job! Here’s the irony, We came over to Australia when I was a child because my parents were picked for their ‘skills’. Dad was a highly qualified engineer and mum was a nurse. When we arrived, my parents had to work in restaurants washing dishes because their qualifications were not recognized!!! Go figure.

    • I know that many, if not most, other countries also have problems in being respectful of both immigrants and the working class (often members, as is said, of both clubs!), but Americans are about as rotten at it as any people can get. Which never fails to both horrify and amaze me, given that we’re also the nation that happily congratulates itself on being the great Melting Pot, the land of the Statue of Liberty holding her lamp “beside the golden door” to welcome all, and the so-called Land of Opportunity. All the while ignoring what the original waves of immigration did to the native population on this continent. Ugh.

      But I also think that there is no possible way to either undo the past but even to fully and justly ameliorate them, so I believe we *all* ought to take a hard look at what exists in the present and make the very best and most sane life out of it that we can, individually and corporately. Are you listening, Middle East? US-Mexico border? Russia? North Korea? ETC???

      ‘Scuse me. Gets me a bit too het up, I guess. 😉 Truth is, everybody could do well to learn from hard-working, honest people, no matter whether they’re like us or different, richer or poorer, next door or across the globe. I salute your parents both for their own accomplishments and for producing you!


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