The Forgotten Dignity Of Labour

A recent event in Delhi involving the band ‘BhangiJumping’  has put the spotlight on dignity of labour. The band’s name led to widespread protests as the term ‘bhangi’ means unclean and was used for manual scavengers. Following the uproar, the Piano Man Jazz Club, where the band was to perform, issued an apology for hurting the sentiments of Dalits. But the apology did more harm than good. It told the “small-minded people” who were protesting to stay away from the gig!

What we have is a heavy chain that binds people to jobs and tasks deemed unworthy, a chain so heavy it can only be lifted and broken when we all step outside our privilege, empathise with, acknowledge and finally, respect the value and implications of each job — taking steps to allow for respectful workspaces, good equipment, job satisfaction and movement. Labour is work. There should be no segregation and ambiguity of dignity.

Remember Value Education class in school? I vaguely recall teachers drilling anecdotes relating to honesty, punctuality, cleanliness and other values – pushed to the forefront to make for the perfect child, grade A student and citizen. We were told that their pursuit would lead to success.

Growing up, I repeatedly questioned this.

You see, as a kid, I saw one value missing in my entire school cohort. It was dignity of labour. The value of believing that all work is equal and respectable, none superior to the other. My introduction to the value was through everyday interactions – conversations which helped me realise how important dignity of labour is to the larger picture and humanity.

The realisation first hit me in school. I was in the first standard and going from class to class, giving chocolates to teachers, ignoring the Peons and Custodians. It was then that a Custodian or whom we call ‘Bai’ stopped me, asking me to give her a chocolate. I obliged, albeit unwillingly and came home to tell my mother, “That custodian stopped me and asked for a chocolate! Why? She is not a teacher!” My Mom calmly responded, “Jessica, how important do you think the Custodian’s job is?”

It was a simple question and yet, I was perplexed. How important is a Custodian’s job? They’re in charge of the cleanliness of the school. They sweep and swab the halls and classrooms till the floor shines. They dust the window panes, desks, tables and banisters. They keep the washrooms clean and tidy. They mop up spilled food and muck. If they were to stop working in the school, the place would be a damned mess – around a 1,000 children in the building would do that. No child would be motivated to go to school if its physical order was in a shambles.

I realised their job is one that I would never want to do. They work super hard and their effort and contribution to the world is unacknowledged and disrespected. Who would want to work like that? Only Superheroes – their contribution to the world a secret. This realisation changed the course of my interactions with people. I would now smile at and acknowledge all I came across. The “Good morning” wasn’t only said by me to my teachers and classmates but also to the Custodians, Peons, Watchmen and Watchwomen.

This experience in school helped me see the nuances in perception held by my peers, family members and friends. From the manner in which my friends spoke to Auto-Rickshaw Drivers to my peers and family members judging me for wanting to join the Arts stream. On the note of Arts, I was asked by many friends who scrunched their noses, “Why Arts? Do you want to become a Teacher?” The nuances in an otherwise perfect exterior came through. This lead me to another realisation – any job associated with service in our country is considered inferior and there is a huge societally deemed distinction between service and contribution.

It is service when your job falls into the service sector. Otherwise, it’s a contribution to the world. What would you do if the plane you’re seated in takes off without the cabin crew? There would be nobody to understand and answer your in-flight worries, address and take care of flight safety, inform and update you about turbulence, serve you meals and snacks, conduct periodic safety checks, detect suspicious behaviour and evidence of malicious intent to prevent dangers such as terrorism – all while communicating with you in a sensitive and respectful manner. And God forbid that the entertainment system doesn’t work. Who will reboot it?

The point I’m trying to make here is that a job is never as simple as just a job, like people – they’re never what they seem at face value and so is their importance.

Every job is vital. We are all ancillary parts to the big engine of the society and economy. Every job is a contribution to the bigger picture and the world

Imagine a plane ride with no order, safety and comfort. Now tell me whether you think a service job isn’t a vital contribution to the world. Tell me that the world wouldn’t fall apart if people’s needs weren’t met on every day of the year by a sector dedicated to it and the economy.

The Rickshaw Driver that takes you from point A to B makes sure that you get where you need to be and possibly on time, the Custodian is making sure that you don’t drop out of school due to fear of illness, the Teacher is making sure that you expand your thought process, knowledge and capability, the Pani Puri wala makes sure that you are not hungry, the Watchman and/or Watchwoman is making sure that you’re safe in a compound, store or building. Service is making sure that people’s needs aren’t left out of the economy.

If you feel that dignity of labour is a value that you need to learn – start small. Begin with cultivating respect. Understand hardships, motivation and performance. Take it from there.

The value starts at home. It lies in washing your plate after eating a meal, filling water in the container or even just your water bottle, cleaning your washroom or just replacing the empty toilet roll, dusting the furniture, washing and/ or folding the clothes, setting the bedsheets, cooking a meal. Dignity of labour is doing all or any of this and much less or more, knowing that’s what makes a home. That these individual chores hold immense value. And so do all chores outside the house. The world wouldn’t be the same if individuals didn’t try their best to do their part.

I do believe that I hold a lucky position. My mom has always tried to involve me in the household chores and shared her varied experiences in the workfield with me. My dad has held a job in the service industry for almost 25 years. Both their stories from times at work, their knowledge, achievements and compassion have helped me to inculcate a deep respect for people working in all sectors of society. I wouldn’t have been able to know the dignity of labour without them.

(Jessica Xalxo is a young professional in the fields of social change, film, writing and education. A positively empowered student, she takes on every challenge as a learning opportunity and tries her best to live life intentionally. She tweets @IriscopeX)