“There are no menial jobs, only menial attitudes”—Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
When we think of work, what more is it than an activity that involves putting in physical or mental effort in certain tasks to achieve desirable results. A good example would be that of any beautiful architectural splendor that happens to be the brainchild of an adept architect who spends hours in conceiving a design and putting it on paper. However, without the expertise of a mason and his helpers his idea can never materialize into reality, yet we praise the architect highly without as much acknowledging the efforts of the labourers, whose work to our mind is nothing more than menial. Similarly, there are many jobs that do not invoke our appreciation nor regard for the one doing them yet they are indispensable.
Until the time that modern day plumbing was introduced in the Sub-continent, the middle class homes had a unique system of sanitation. Open toilets were built on the roof tops of small houses or in the secluded areas of courtyards in fairly larger ones. These were regularly cleared by members of the so-called “low-caste” who carried away the waste in large baskets placed on their heads to be disposed of adequately. One can just imagine the level of hygiene and cleanliness had it not been for these glorious persons who were regarded with contempt and declared untouchable by those very people whose faeces were removed. Such is the honour that we give to cleaners, sweepers, domestic helpers, etc. Instead of admitting their contributions, they are considered lowly, having no self-respect. Other vocations are also no exception.
We are quick to pass judgements on account of the work people do even if they are otherwise honest and sincere. Cobblers, barbers, tailors, peons, receptionists, carpenters, gardeners, electricians, labourers are all part of that proletarian community which cannot be done away with but at the same time is too base to be looked up to with respect. Thus a manipulative smart alec from the upper stratum of society having a five-figure salary is bound to draw attention as well as ‘friends’ while a clerk who may be working with more diligence could be respected but is considered low class and unfit to be made an acquaintance. Jokes are cracked about their laziness or low IQ levels and sarcasm is expressed about their ‘low’ birth even if one of them reaches a high position. A case in point is that of late Muhammad Rafi, a singer who was second to none in united and divided India and a well-known Pakistani politician, both originally belonging to families of barbers. Even some acts or words of the present prime minister of India are callously attributed to his humble beginnings.
In our society, getting simple education is not everyone’s forte let alone achieving very high academic degrees. Since colleges and universities are expensive there are many enthusiasts who are willing to take up “low skill jobs” in order to fund their studies. One such person working as a waiter and hurt by the attitude of others complained: “No one knows about my degree nor do they need to know. But man, it just makes me sick the way in which these people talk to me. Now it’s not in a nasty way, it’s condescending in tone. I know it’s because of the work that I do.”
We are usually overwhelmed by what the West has to offer and try to emulate whatever it does but that is more on a pick and choose basis. Dignity of labour, which can be observed in Europe and the USA and even some civilized countries of Asia, somehow seems to be missing in our society. In those countries, people doing “low-level” jobs rub shoulders with executives who feel no qualm in associating with them, sharing the same table during lunch-breaks or other such gatherings. They are addressed with respect and polite speech and not treated with disdain or with the intent of humiliation. A Pakistani boy from an upper middle class family studying in the USA feels no hesitation to work at a supermarket’s till or the gas station but if asked to perform the same duties in his own country, he would certainly shy away.
Having said this, we must try to understand why there is such a disparity between our thinking and that of the West and why does the behavior or attitude of our children change in diverse backgrounds. One can place the blame entirely on the great cultural divide in which familial interdependency is a principal trait whereby parents in our society tend to be supportive as well as possessive about their offspring. They keep them dependent financially until they manage to get a well-paying job after which the expectation is a reciprocity of this support in their old age. So while the parents in the West demand rent from their own children after a certain age and require them to fund their own education, Pakistani parents continue to finance their children’s college education. Consequently, children of the West are forced to take up odd jobs from an early age that helps to break their pride as far as quality of work is concerned. On the other hand, the attitude of spoon-feeding and fear of slurring their reputation on ability to provide, prevents parents from allowing their child to take up any job, let alone an odd one until completion of education. Even their subsequent weddings are fully funded by the doting parents. Another great dilemma could be the absence of proper regulations and enforcement of labour laws in our country enabling odd jobs to carry better monetary compensation comparable with those of the West.
The question then arises, how to subdue the sense of moral superiority that our minds are obsessed with? Obviously it would be extremely difficult to overnight dismantle our closely-bound family system or change the mental outlook of our people. A well planned and focused scheme of things would need to be implemented at both governmental and academic levels. On the part of the government, compensations for ‘low-class’ jobs should be raised to a reasonable limit that is sufficient to meet the needs of an average family, Those who are guilty of exploiting the poor should be given exemplary punishment, not by mere imprisonment or meager fines but through bashing in the media. The loss of one’s good repute is more dreadful than loss of money.
On the academic front, at the college level, where opportunities of internships are available with big companies, a couple of weeks of apprenticeship with ordinary artisans and workers should be made compulsory for boys and girls before conferring them with degrees. This would introduce them to realities of labour and teach them to appreciate the jobs that are so easily ignored, rather looked down upon. Together, this might cause a crack in the orthodox outlook of our people and bestow honour on those whose jobs are still considered low-grade though not meaningless.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)