The hidden workforce we depend is always in the frontline

The world is an upside-down place. It is often the people who do the least pleasant and hardest jobs that have the lowest status, get the lowest pay, suffer the worst illnesses, receive the worst care and die youngest. The contrast is not only between the people at the bottom and those at the top but with people in the middle too.

Working in a university and spending part of my time studying this paradox, I struggled to make students understand. I played a game. I used what is sometimes called a thought experiment.

Imagine an evil alien arrives on earth with a ray gun. The alien tells you that if they press button A all the doctors and nurses would instantly disappear. If they press button B all the people building and maintaining sewers, collecting rubbish, cleaning toilets would disappear. You must tell me, says the alien, which button to press. If you refuse, I will press both. But you can save one group – which one will it be?

The answer almost invariably came – save the doctors and nurses. But why? They only save the lives of people who get ill. If they disappeared, tomorrow would not be very different for most of us. But if those who keep us clean disappeared then within a few days life as we know it in the developed world would collapse. We would literally be drowning in shit and within weeks, no matter how many doctors and nurses we had, we would be overwhelmed by infectious diseases.

The reason that life expectancy in the rich world is so high is that we have overcome the dirt and the disease of the past. Medicine has played a much smaller role than sewers and clean water. And if we think about this much at all it is to remember the engineers who designed the sewage and water systems. We do not think about the people who dug the first trenches for them and who now maintain the system in rain and shine.

And when we do go to hospital, we are rightly grateful for the doctors and the nurses who help us. But hospitals are also places of cross-infection. Here it is the cleaners and porters who help keep the floors and walls clean. They deal with the toilets and the waste. They fill the dispensers with antiseptics. Yet, their contribution is so much less visible to us.

Look at those in employment who are worst affected by the risks of Covid and you see it is the low- paid on the frontlines who are most at risk. In a school, the headteacher is less vulnerable than the teacher. The teacher is less vulnerable than the teaching assistant and all of them are less vulnerable than the cleaners.

There is something else. We know that every job has two parts. One bit is in the job description. The other bit is what you do in addition. One of the most humbling pieces of research I have been involved in was supervising a thesis on manual labour in universities – the work of security guards, cleaners, catering staff, and so on. The researcher made me see the world I worked in from a very different angle.

As a teacher you think you are the centre of everyone’s attention and not least students. You are not. You do not comfort the homesick student late at night in the halls of residence. You do not deal with the tensions that inevitably arise between people. You are not there every morning, smiling and saying hello like the catering staff who feed hungry people in the dining area even as their own children may be taking themselves to school. When students in the UK found themselves stuck in halls because of the Covid outbreak it was not the teachers who delivered them food or took their rubbish away.

Who is the most stressed person in the university I would ask the students? Nine out of ten would say the director. No, I would say. It is the people at the bottom who are trying to juggle low pay and perhaps two jobs. It is on them that the real mental and physical pressures fall. The director has it easy, I have it easy and, if you succeed, you will have it easy too in comparison with these people.
Did the students listen? I do not know. But I did have one last suggestion which was once given to me. I am still eternally grateful for the advice. If you want to know the world and your place in it then think about the people who are finishing their work when you start and starting their work when you are leaving.

You can see it in every workplace. It may even be in your street. My neighbour is a manual worker who works a 3-shift rotation. His weeks start at 6am, 2 pm or 10 pm. (That is if he is not asked to do a 12-hour shift). You will probably guess his pay is not great. And where does he work?
In a factory producing toilet rolls for workplace toilets.

This blog was written for Mark Bergfield’s World of Work Newsletter 20 November 2020. I am grateful for the opportunity he gave me to put it there first.

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