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Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America

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A groundbreaking, urgent report from the front lines of dirty work--the work that society considers essential but morally compromised Drone pilots who carry out targeted assassinations. Undocumented immigrants who man the "kill floors" of industrial slaughterhouses. Guards who patrol the wards of America's most violent and abusive prisons. In Dirty Work, Eyal Press offers a A groundbreaking, urgent report from the front lines of dirty work--the work that society considers essential but morally compromised Drone pilots who carry out targeted assassinations. Undocumented immigrants who man the "kill floors" of industrial slaughterhouses. Guards who patrol the wards of America's most violent and abusive prisons. In Dirty Work, Eyal Press offers a paradigm-shifting view of the moral landscape of contemporary America through the stories of people who perform society's most ethically troubling jobs. As Press shows, we are increasingly shielded and distanced from an array of morally questionable activities that other, less privileged people perform in our name. The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn unprecedented attention to the issue of "essential workers," and to the health and safety risks to which workers in prisons and slaughterhouses are exposed. But Dirty Work examines another, less familiar set of occupational hazards: psychological and emotional hardships such as stigma, shame, PTSD, and moral injury. These burdens fall disproportionately on low-income workers, undocumented immigrants, women, and people of color. Illuminating the moving, at times harrowing stories of the people doing society's dirty work, and incisively examining the structures of power and complicity that shape their lives, Press reveals fundamental truths about the moral dimensions of work, and the hidden costs of inequality in America.


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A groundbreaking, urgent report from the front lines of dirty work--the work that society considers essential but morally compromised Drone pilots who carry out targeted assassinations. Undocumented immigrants who man the "kill floors" of industrial slaughterhouses. Guards who patrol the wards of America's most violent and abusive prisons. In Dirty Work, Eyal Press offers a A groundbreaking, urgent report from the front lines of dirty work--the work that society considers essential but morally compromised Drone pilots who carry out targeted assassinations. Undocumented immigrants who man the "kill floors" of industrial slaughterhouses. Guards who patrol the wards of America's most violent and abusive prisons. In Dirty Work, Eyal Press offers a paradigm-shifting view of the moral landscape of contemporary America through the stories of people who perform society's most ethically troubling jobs. As Press shows, we are increasingly shielded and distanced from an array of morally questionable activities that other, less privileged people perform in our name. The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn unprecedented attention to the issue of "essential workers," and to the health and safety risks to which workers in prisons and slaughterhouses are exposed. But Dirty Work examines another, less familiar set of occupational hazards: psychological and emotional hardships such as stigma, shame, PTSD, and moral injury. These burdens fall disproportionately on low-income workers, undocumented immigrants, women, and people of color. Illuminating the moving, at times harrowing stories of the people doing society's dirty work, and incisively examining the structures of power and complicity that shape their lives, Press reveals fundamental truths about the moral dimensions of work, and the hidden costs of inequality in America.

30 review for Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jenna

    "How many 'good people' prefer not to know too much about what is being done in their name? And how much easier is this to achieve when what gets done can be delegated to a separate, largely invisible class of 'dirty workers'?" When you think of dirty jobs, you might think of garbage collectors and sewer pipe cleaners, or if you're a Dickens fan, a small, grimy child scrubbing soot from the inside of a chimney. Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America is not about th "How many 'good people' prefer not to know too much about what is being done in their name? And how much easier is this to achieve when what gets done can be delegated to a separate, largely invisible class of 'dirty workers'?" When you think of dirty jobs, you might think of garbage collectors and sewer pipe cleaners, or if you're a Dickens fan, a small, grimy child scrubbing soot from the inside of a chimney. Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America is not about those physically dirty jobs, but those that are morally "dirty". Author Eyal Press delves into those jobs that most of us prefer not to think about, but that someone has to do. This is not just work that is unpleasant. Mr Press describes dirty work as "work that causes substantial harm either to other people or to nonhuman animals and the environment, often through the infliction of violence. Second, it entails doing something that “good people”—the respectable members of society—see as dirty and morally compromised. Third, it is work that is injurious to the people who do it, " whether morally, physically, or both. The "good" people rely on this work being done, and see it as necessary, but can turn a blind eye and, if confronted, can disavow any responsibility. Instead, we tend to blame the people who do these jobs, look down on them, and hold them responsible, even though their jobs would not exist if they weren't deemed necessary by the majority of people. The book is divided into four main job categories: corrections officers and health care providers who work in prisons, drone pilots, slaughterhouse workers, and oil industry employees. Mr Press discusses the moral and psychological toll these jobs take on the majority of people who perform them. He interviews many of these workers and the book is more human interest than statistics. I liked reading about one or two workers per category but sometimes grew bored by the repetition of many peoples' stories. Still, it's a book worth reading, repetitious or not, if only to get you thinking about the plight of people who have little choice but to perform these roles, often due to there not being many other jobs where they live, or are the only ones that pay a living wage. I had to skip the section on slaughterhouses, but as a vegan who in no way supports the torture and murder of billions of animals, I am not the one who is responsible and needs to read this. If you consume animal products, whether by eating meat, wearing leather, eating dairy or white sugar or gummy bears (made with gelatin which is made with animal bones), you are just as responsible for the extreme suffering of animals as the people who are all but forced to work there. I am, however, responsible for the other jobs, both through my tax dollars that pay for prisons and drone warfare and by relying on fossil fuels. I am contributing to the moral suffering of many people who work in these industries, as well as to the abuse of people in prisons, the murder of women and children and other innocent people in drone strikes, and the destruction of our planet. Until all the "good" people begin acknowledging our part in "dirty" work, we will not demand change. We will go about our lives happily relegating the dirty jobs to those society thinks so little of. We will continue to turn a blind eye to suffering, and take no responsibility when we are confronted with it. But we need not personally push the button to detonate the drone bomb, or extinguish the life of a sentient creature in a slaughterhouse, or silently watch as people in prisons are abused and sometimes murdered in order to be responsible. It is not just the responsibility of those who are forced to do the jobs most of us don't want to even think about -- it is all of us who are responsible for dirty work.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Julie Kim

    Dirty Work is a deeply harrowing, thought-provoking, and incisive indictment of the choices we make as a society to relegate morally dubious work to some of the least privileged and most disadvantaged groups among us. Buttressed with various case studies from select industries, Press argues that Americans have long disposed of the morally objectionable work to the less fortunate through an "unconscious mandate" while deflecting the blame and burden associated with engaging in such heinous work b Dirty Work is a deeply harrowing, thought-provoking, and incisive indictment of the choices we make as a society to relegate morally dubious work to some of the least privileged and most disadvantaged groups among us. Buttressed with various case studies from select industries, Press argues that Americans have long disposed of the morally objectionable work to the less fortunate through an "unconscious mandate" while deflecting the blame and burden associated with engaging in such heinous work by quite literally reducing it to the shadowy corners of our world. In exposing the veins of hypocrisy that run through American society (or any society for that matter), Press sheds light on how using our proxy moral agents as scapegoats belies the classist/racist power dynamics that lead said agents to "volunteer" for such tasks in the first place. The illusion of choice, and the resulting shame, societal ejection, and accusatory branding that take place, all illuminate the ways in which the presence and tacit importance of dirty work speak more about us than about the workers who carry them out. Press does a splendid job introducing and applying various sociological concepts/terms and weaving them into the stories he's telling about the people he met and interviewed. All of the people he introduces have heartbreaking stories that raise consequential questions about the unspoken moral consensuses we've reached as it relates to the food we eat, the wars we wage, the people we (don't) let in our borders, the punishments we mete out to the most vulnerable populations, and other morally grey issues that make us squirm in our seats. Press skillfully calls out the privilege that underlies our ability to stand on some imagined moral high ground and spew judgment at ICE agents, all in the name of fighting forced separations of families, or at COs in the name of fighting mass incarceration, or at drone soldiers in the name of protecting peace, or at oil rig workers in the name of protecting the environment. Having such scapegoats obfuscates the reality and hard truth that these systems and institutions are in place because Americans chose to have it this way, and the people who are bearing the brunt of the morally injurious work are ironically the ones who can't afford to leave it behind. More importantly, our myopic focus on individuals who commit objectionable acts within such broken systems hinders our collective ability to question, expose, and hold accountable the systemic issues that are often the root cause. A horrifying pattern that Press observes is that calls around labor rights and conditions, such as the lethal working conditions in the meatpacking industry or the oil industry, often don't get the attention they deserve while ancillary issues surrounding the quality of our meat or the harmful effects of the oil industry on the environment do. Press aptly describes this as the more privileged class using virtue as a currency, "buying their way out of feeling complicit in the impure, dirty practices" of the industries they dare not look at for fear of seeing/knowing too much. An essential, timely, and unequivocally illuminating book that I would recommend to anyone. If you enjoyed the journalistic rigor, informative observations, and perhaps shock value of books like Evicted, you won't be disappointed with Dirty Work. Big thank you to the publisher for making this ARC available through Netgalley! Cups of Tea | Blog | Bookstagram

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sara Broad

    "Dirty Work" by Eyal Press is a nonfiction book comprised of descriptions about different sectors of employment in America that are unsafe, underpaid, and undervalued. The first section of the book, which is about mental health clinicians and the care of mentally ill people in prison, is basically an extension of Press's 2016 New Yorker article. It was interesting, and sad, to get a closer look into how impossible it is for people committed to helping mentally ill incarcerated people to actually "Dirty Work" by Eyal Press is a nonfiction book comprised of descriptions about different sectors of employment in America that are unsafe, underpaid, and undervalued. The first section of the book, which is about mental health clinicians and the care of mentally ill people in prison, is basically an extension of Press's 2016 New Yorker article. It was interesting, and sad, to get a closer look into how impossible it is for people committed to helping mentally ill incarcerated people to actually do their jobs, not to mention that prisoners are tortured. The next section is about the people, a large percentage of whom are immigrant, working in the meatpacking industry. The "dirtiness" of this job in terms of the everyday nature of this occupation has only been exacerbated by the huge risks that employees were forced to take as essential workers during the pandemic. Many workers give up the already low wages earned in this job to take even lower wage jobs because of how brutal working in meatpacking plants is. There is also a section of "Dirty Work" on drone operators working in the United States, an occupation that is often buried beneath our idea about who works in defense. The final section of the book highlights the emotional and physical hardships faced by people working in the energy and tech industries, and while these jobs tend to be much higher paying than those discussed in previous sections of the book, they are just as harmful. "Dirty Work" showcases the overall mistreatment, often allowed by shoddy laws, blind eyes, and corporate greed that is the standard in so many jobs in the United States. This book is really powerful and should open up many discussions about how we can create a healthier, sustainable environment for all workers.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Emi Bevacqua

    To say this powerful book is eye opening is such an understatement. Author Eyal Press has put together a comprehensive collection of illustrative evidence that America runs on "dirty work" and moral inequity. From prisons, drone warfare, meat and poultry plants and farms and hotel housekeeping, to offshore drilling, so much of what virtuous consumers think they aren't abiding, they are actually complicit in sustaining. Released today, this research encompasses the historical and the up to date. To say this powerful book is eye opening is such an understatement. Author Eyal Press has put together a comprehensive collection of illustrative evidence that America runs on "dirty work" and moral inequity. From prisons, drone warfare, meat and poultry plants and farms and hotel housekeeping, to offshore drilling, so much of what virtuous consumers think they aren't abiding, they are actually complicit in sustaining. Released today, this research encompasses the historical and the up to date. Several subjects include COVID-19 impact. Floggings, beheadings and hangings have been outlawed, as elites came to regard them as repellent, uncivilized... finding execution by lethal injection much tidier. And caging inmates (mainly black and mentally infirm) in hidden, segregated "isolation units," limiting medical care, clean linens, and access to food and water proves profitable. Meanwhile prison guards are made to feel devalued, so embarrassed about what they do for a living that they avoid talking about it. Workers killed on the Deepwater Horizon got less attention than images of wildlife covered in oil. The cheapness of American meat masks an array of hidden costs to the environment, to public health, to living animals, and to the industry's "dirty" workers. Virtuous consumption creates a virtue divide that all too often mirrors class divide. As political correctness ramps up, the obfuscation of suffering and greed intensifies. Virtue correlates with privilege.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Dewey

    Chapters on prison work, drone support work, meatpacking, cobalt and tech. Nothing that groundbreaking in the reportage. You've probably read about some of these things already, if you're coming to this book. What is meaningful and worthwhile is the constant tie back to the broader moral implications to the general populace of this work. Bottom line is we are generally complicit either through apathy or willfully turning a blind eye, in perpetuating work that is dehumanizing and/or necessitates Chapters on prison work, drone support work, meatpacking, cobalt and tech. Nothing that groundbreaking in the reportage. You've probably read about some of these things already, if you're coming to this book. What is meaningful and worthwhile is the constant tie back to the broader moral implications to the general populace of this work. Bottom line is we are generally complicit either through apathy or willfully turning a blind eye, in perpetuating work that is dehumanizing and/or necessitates moral injury.

  6. 5 out of 5

    James Beggarly

    Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. This book is a deep dive into the demanding, and damaging, work that most Americans realize needs to be done, but ultimately doesn’t want to think about and certainly doesn’t want to hear about. The author focuses on prisons, not just the inmates, but specifically the guards and other workers who have to defer to the guards for their very safety. Also the ever increasing drone program and what that does to people who watch and recommend these strikes fr Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. This book is a deep dive into the demanding, and damaging, work that most Americans realize needs to be done, but ultimately doesn’t want to think about and certainly doesn’t want to hear about. The author focuses on prisons, not just the inmates, but specifically the guards and other workers who have to defer to the guards for their very safety. Also the ever increasing drone program and what that does to people who watch and recommend these strikes from miles, and sometimes several countries, away. The third focus is on the kill floors of meat packing plants. This is all such eye opening reporting as the author takes you back in time and moves to the present to show you how we got here. He also finds so many workers from the frontlines today who have fascinating and heartbreaking stories to share. Powerful reporting throughout.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Meli

    "Press’s thesis is that our society confers on these workers an “unconscious mandate” to do jobs that are morally objectionable and at the same time wants those jobs to remain invisible." "He is fascinated by Hannah Arendt’s thesis from “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (1963) about the banality of evil, the horrors committed thoughtlessly by those “just following orders.” Her view was supported by the results of Stanley Milgram’s “shock experiments,” published during the same period, in which subjects wer "Press’s thesis is that our society confers on these workers an “unconscious mandate” to do jobs that are morally objectionable and at the same time wants those jobs to remain invisible." "He is fascinated by Hannah Arendt’s thesis from “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (1963) about the banality of evil, the horrors committed thoughtlessly by those “just following orders.” Her view was supported by the results of Stanley Milgram’s “shock experiments,” published during the same period, in which subjects were instructed to deliver dangerous electrical shocks to a person (in fact an actor screaming on a tape recorder) in an adjacent room. At least in the version of the results Milgram publicized widely, most subjects complied. The New York Times framed a 1963 report on the experiments by asking, “What sort of people, slavishly doing what they are told, would send millions of fellow humans into gas chambers or commit other such atrocities?” The answer was that conditions could quite easily be created in which people acted with blind obedience. [...] Press gently pushes back against this reductive account of human behavior. In his previous book, “Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times,” he recounted the stories of ordinary people who refused to follow immoral orders, regardless of the consequences. In both books he ushers us into a world of moral nuance and psychological complexity that behavioral science rarely captures. In “Dirty Work,” Press shows us many different forms of complicity with the business of harm. Most of the people who do our “dirty work,” he stresses, are marginalized and invisible because they are poor [...] Press reports that some of those working in secretive drone warfare programs were offered little explanation of what they would be doing, and as they came to comprehend their missions they spiraled psychologically, from disappointment to disgust or suicidal despair." With a review like this, can't not add this to my TBR.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Barb Chamberlin

    As painful as it is to read, we must face this! We’ve really not progressed much in the last hundred years, what has changed, is our ability to see what’s happening. We are flooded with stories of corruption, mishandling, starvation. Maybe like the Enron debacle, we are suffering from too much information. We can’t see the trees for the forest. We have a class of “ untouchables”, like other countries have. We just don’t acknowledge it. There is little in this book that has not been reported else As painful as it is to read, we must face this! We’ve really not progressed much in the last hundred years, what has changed, is our ability to see what’s happening. We are flooded with stories of corruption, mishandling, starvation. Maybe like the Enron debacle, we are suffering from too much information. We can’t see the trees for the forest. We have a class of “ untouchables”, like other countries have. We just don’t acknowledge it. There is little in this book that has not been reported elsewhere— though perhaps not in the same way. We all know terrible things happen in our prisons, that slaughter houses require staff that kill all day, that many people die in the quest for oil, that there are people behind the drone strikes, that the mining for the metals used in all our gadgets is worse than coal mining ever was—what we don’t know, is how those jobs affect the people who do them. The companies that make their money from each of those industries are hell bent on covering up their dirty jobs and businesses. As are politicians who accept their donations—hell, we don’t want to think about it!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    This book is a difficult read due to the descriptions of working conditions of society's undervalued, underpaid, "essential workers" who are doing the jobs needed to keep society going but are often viewed with disdain by average Americans. Yet we have a co-dependent, complicit relationship with these jobs -- we just avert our eyes to what the working conditions are really like and shamefully blame the individuals in these jobs as having a lesser value on life or a different morality than others This book is a difficult read due to the descriptions of working conditions of society's undervalued, underpaid, "essential workers" who are doing the jobs needed to keep society going but are often viewed with disdain by average Americans. Yet we have a co-dependent, complicit relationship with these jobs -- we just avert our eyes to what the working conditions are really like and shamefully blame the individuals in these jobs as having a lesser value on life or a different morality than others have -- all untrue and extremely harmful. There is also a theme of corruption of power throughout the book that further compounds the lack of agency of individuals in these jobs. I had to read through some of the sections fairly quickly due to the graphic descriptions of violence. A very important read to shine a light on the "dirty work" we are unwilling to admit we as a society ultimately (and those in power) benefit from.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Vryhof

    Conscience pricking, smartly written book. I appreciate the through-line, connecting the jobs done today with those of the past and connecting the seemingly disparate roles with one another based on their consequences to the worker and the world. While it was good to think that our generation is not inherently evil, it was incredibly disheartening to realize that these problems have been occurring for centuries and no one has been able to solve them. Equally disappointing was the author's point Conscience pricking, smartly written book. I appreciate the through-line, connecting the jobs done today with those of the past and connecting the seemingly disparate roles with one another based on their consequences to the worker and the world. While it was good to think that our generation is not inherently evil, it was incredibly disheartening to realize that these problems have been occurring for centuries and no one has been able to solve them. Equally disappointing was the author's point that no one individual can move the needle on any of these issues, and that it is only through broad collective societal change. Excellent read for crystalizing awareness of my personal complicity in a global economy full of abuses. A couple hundred pages of uncomfortable food for thought.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Crystal

    If you have family/friends who are military veterans, who work in the oil fields/off-shore, who work in jails/prisons/the DOC, and who work in meatpacking (in close proximity to the killing floor), then you may know some or even all of this, but if you don't, then this is an essential read. If you have family/friends who are military veterans, who work in the oil fields/off-shore, who work in jails/prisons/the DOC, and who work in meatpacking (in close proximity to the killing floor), then you may know some or even all of this, but if you don't, then this is an essential read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Anne Meyer

    Not a lot of new information here that hasn’t been shared in other, similar texts.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Janet

    Often uncomfortable, but well-written and compelling. Clearly presented and definitely worth reading.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    This book was hard to read in a way that well written books about uncomfortable truths often are. I recommend it and am grateful to the author for expanding my perspective.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Philip

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kat Cerilla

  17. 4 out of 5

    James

  18. 4 out of 5

    Joe Calabrese

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jodie

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lilly71490

  21. 5 out of 5

    Morgan

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rhoda

  23. 5 out of 5

    Maura Muller

  24. 4 out of 5

    Thomas P. Locke

  25. 5 out of 5

    Turnlung

  26. 4 out of 5

    John Dimoia

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sara

  28. 4 out of 5

    Anna

  29. 4 out of 5

    Wsickler

  30. 4 out of 5

    Bc

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