Book Review: Dirty Work- Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality by Eyal Press

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Guards who patrol the wards of America’s most violent and abusive prisons. Undocumented immigrants who man the ‘kill floors’ of industrial slaughterhouses. Roustabouts who drill for oil on offshore rigs. And drone operators who kill people from thousands of miles away.

These are the essential workers we prefer not to think about. Their morally dubious, often physically violent and dangerous activity sustains modern society yet is concealed from our gaze. It is work that falls disproportionately in deprived areas, on immigrants and people of colour, and entails a less familiar set of occupational hazards – stigma, shame and moral injury.

Eyal Press reveals fundamental truths about the morality of work and the hidden costs of inequality. Striking, sophisticated and nuanced, Dirty Work will change the way you think about society.

I was provided with a hardback copy of Dirty Work by Eyal Press by Head of Zeus for the purpose of review, for which they have my thanks. As always, I have reviewed the book honestly and impartially.

One of the greatest movie speeches of all time is made by Colonel Nathan Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson) in the final courtroom scene of A Few Good Men and it contains the following lines:

 I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said “thank you” and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand at post. 

I’m repeating it here, not only because I’ll use any excuse to reference this movie and think everyone should watch it (both Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise give the performances of their careers), but because it sprang to mind as I was reading one of the sections of Dirty Work  by Eyal Press as a pretty good illustration of the themes of the novel. Colonel Jessup is incensed that anyone dare question the morality of the methods he employs in the running of his Marine unit, which is defending one of the most contentious of America’s borders at great peril to his men, while the questioners relax under the safety and security provided by those same men. People at a safe distance judging the men doing the ‘dirty work’ of defence, whilst blithely enjoying its fruits.

Of course, in the film, Jessup is not a victim. He is a power-hungry, arrogant individual who is careless of the safety of some of his men, tries to cover up his misdemeanours and is quite willing to let two very junior soldiers who trusted him carry the can so he can continue to reap the rewards of his terrible behaviour. He is not the one to feel pity for. No, it is the two Marines at the bottom of the chain who are the ones who are suffering here, the ones who are being judged for carrying out the unpalatable tasks with which the American people have charged them.

Eyal Press’s book is an exploration of this theme. What effects does the stigma of carrying out society’s ‘dirty work’ – those jobs that many people see as morally suspect, whilst at the same time making the demands for the actions or products that make this dirty work necessary – have on the people who do it and how fair is it that the inequalities entrenched in society mean that those people already most socially disadvantaged end up doing them.

I understand that this may sound like heavy going and, honestly, the topic does not lend itself to light reading but, one of the reasons I referenced A Few Good Men above is because I found that the approach the author has taken in this book made the whole subject surprisingly accessible and easy-ish to digest, and engaging, if not comfortable, reading.

The book is divided into four sections, each approaching a different occupation which the majority of the public would view as a morally repugnant job they would superficially choose to denigrate but, when probed, would probably be forced to admit needs to be done – either because the need is simply inescapable, as in the case of the guarding of the mentally ill who find themselves in prison or the use of drones in warfare, or because they are simply not prepared to change their lifestyles to eliminate the need for the end product produced, as in the case of crude oil or affordable meat production. People would prefer not to be faced with the reality of these occupations, prefer to have them hidden away where they are not confronted with the brutal reality of these jobs and the people who do them. But what effect does working in these reviled occupations have on the workers – the author tells us by letting the workers speak for themselves.

It would be wrong to say I enjoyed this book, its purpose is not enjoyment. It is to shine a light in places that have been deliberately pushed into dark corners and which most of us would prefer to remain so shrouded. It is to give a voice to people who otherwise are never heard and to force us to think about things we choose to shy away from. It is supposed to be uncomfortable reading, we should be uncomfortable about the way these people are treated. We should be asking ourselves what we, individually and as a society, can do to change things for them. The purpose of this book is to make us open our eyes and our minds to things we don’t want to think about. It is a book I have already talked about to the people around me whilst I was reading it, which I will continue to think about going forward and would highly recommend to anyone who thinks they have a social conscience. I can assure you, it will make you feel ashamed, as we all should, but all the more reason to read it.

Dirty Work is out now and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Eyal Press is a writer and journalist who contributes to The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications. Since the spring of 2021, he is also a sociologist with a PhD from New York University. He grew up in Buffalo, which served as the backdrop of his first book, Absolute Convictions (2006). His second book, Beautiful Souls (2012), examined the nature of moral courage through the stories of individuals who risked their careers, and sometimes their lives, to defy unjust orders. A New York Times editors’ choice, the book has been translated into numerous languages and selected as the common read at several universities, including Penn State and his alma mater, Brown University. His most recent book, Dirty Work (2021), examines the morally troubling jobs that society tacitly condones and the hidden class of workers who do them. A recipient of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, he has received an Andrew Carnegie fellowship, a Cullman Center fellowship at the New York Public Library and a Puffin Foundation fellowship at Type Media Center.

Connect with Eyal:

Website: https://www.eyalpress.com/

Twitter: @EyalPress

Instagram: @eyal.press

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