How America Learned to Outsource Its Dirtiest Work to the Least Powerful

How America Learned to Outsource Its Dirtiest Work to the Least Powerful

How America Learned to Outsource Its Dirtiest Work to the Least Powerful

A conversation with author Eyal Press about the men and women who do this country’s most maligned jobs and the psychic toll it takes on them.


For over a decade, anti-war protesters across northern California have congregated at Beale Air Force Base to condemn US drone strikes abroad. Located an hour north of Sacramento, the base employs imagery analysts and drone operators who perform reconnaissance and order strikes. At one protest, a banner displayed near the entrance of the base asked, “Do the drones hear the cries of children dying on the ground?” At another protest, in 2017, activists stopped traffic from coming into the base for almost an hour. “Beale personnel in the Global Hawk drone program witness…carnage on their computer screens,” read one of the leaflets the activists passed out to drivers. “What toll is taken on their psychic and spiritual well-being?”

For many who work in the program, this toll is considerable. Heather Linebaugh, an imagery and geospatial analyst who started working at Beale in 2008, joined the military to escape her hometown and find opportunities elsewhere. Not long after, however, she began to question whether the strikes she witnessed on her computer screen were hitting the right targets and if they were moral. She cried in the bathroom at work, ground her teeth so badly at night that she cracked a molar, and, after consulting with a military psychologist, was put on suicide watch. Three years after she joined the Air Force, she quit.

Heather’s story is among the many told in Eyal Press’s new book Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America. In it, he documents the multiple injuries that “dirty workers”—people working in settings ranging from jails and prisons to offshore oil rigs and slaughterhouses—suffer. And he asks whether righteous vilification truly brings about social change or if it instead distances us from what we abhor, absolving ourselves of the responsibility we all share. What if we collectively assumed responsibility for violent, unjust systems that disproportionately burden those with the least power? We discussed this and more in the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

—Jasmine Liu

JL: Your book tells the stories of correctional psychiatrists, drone operators, slaughterhouse workers, and offshore oil-rig workers. What unites all these people under the category of “dirty workers”?

EP: What unites them is that they are doing work that causes substantial social harm—sometimes to people, sometimes to nonhuman animals or the environment—and the work is also damaging to them. Those are two layers of damage that all the workers in the book share. The other piece of it is that they are doing work that society depends on and tacitly condones but doesn’t want to hear too much about.

JL: It may not be immediately intuitive that their work enjoys this tacit mandate—most American citizens, if presented with footage of prison abuse or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, would condemn it. Why do you suggest that dirty work is condoned by the public?

EP: When I say something is passively condoned, I don’t mean that it is explicitly approved of. It’s a passive acceptance of these institutional arrangements because at some level they are convenient. It’s not that people want to see animals treated brutally, but many want cheap meat. It’s not that people approve of the unsafe conditions that led to the Deepwater Horizon blast, but many people want low gas prices. It’s not that people say it would be a great idea to have jails and prisons warehouse mentally ill people, but low taxes? Contracting out services to the cheapest bidder? OK. It’s less a matter of the public saying, “We approve of these horrible things,” and more that the institutional arrangements have become very entrenched and invisible to much of the public.

JL: A recurring theme in your book is that the consequences of this tacit mandate are very visible to the dirty workers you profile in the book. What kind of psychological effect does this have on them?

EP: It varies a lot. In some cases, it’s stigma; in other cases, it’s guilt and shame; in other cases still, it’s moral injury—doing something in the course of fulfilling your professional duties that goes against your core values, and witnessing or being involved in that to such an extent that you feel that you’ve betrayed yourself. There’s also PTSD and trauma in some cases.

The workers I interviewed experience a lot of these things. There were also people in these work worlds that do not outwardly display any of these things. One could ask, is this really generalizable?

First of all, the structural conditions are such that there is a really widespread psychic and emotional toll in these forms of work. The second thing is that when workers doing what I describe as dirty work don’t seem troubled, that doesn’t mean the work doesn’t take a toll. I spoke to prison guards who talked to me about peers who seemed perfectly fine, and then, one day, committed suicide. Suicide rates among prison guards are high, as are rates of PTSD, divorce, alcoholism, and hypertension. When you look in depth at that occupational health literature, even for those who seem outwardly untroubled, the immersion in an environment that is violent and brutal can dehumanize not just incarcerated people but the people who are incarcerating them as well.

JL: Some of the workers you interview voice frustration with various forms of activism, whether that’s peace protests staged outside the entrance of a military base or environmental imagery at the congressional hearing for the oil spill. Why?

EP: At the broadest level, some of the dirty workers I interviewed—both in the drone program and in other instances—felt like the activism fails to take account of the class and power dynamics that shape who ends up doing this dirty work in our society. This dirty work is not done by the powerful and the privileged; it is disproportionately delegated to people lower down on the social ladder. Class and race inequality in this country shapes where industrial slaughterhouses are located and who works in them; where jails and prisons are located and who gets recruited to work in them.

The activism, which calls attention to what harm is often caused in these institutions, on the one hand, is very admirable, because it’s an attempt to pull back the curtain and to say, “Look, those drone strikes kill innocent people. These jails and prisons are part of a system that causes mass suffering and that is structurally racist.” But to the people on the inside on the lower rungs, there can be a sense that they are being blamed for the harm caused by systems they have very little control over. There is inequality not just in terms of who does the dirty work, but who ends up getting blamed for it—and too often, it’s the workers on the lowest rungs and not the public officials who were elected and made decisions that determined the conditions under which all of this took place, and the very fact that it took place.

JL: Can you talk about why that dirty work is so invisible to us today?

EP: An essential contention of the book is that concealment is central to how dirty work is perpetuated and organized. If we go back in time, dirty work in every society has been obscured and pushed to the margins. One of the historical examples I cite is the domestic slave trade in the United States, which greatly embarrassed Southern plantation owners, who of course perpetuated and depended on it but wanted not to be associated with it. There was this effort to distance themselves from auctioneers and traffickers and to pretend that coffles of slaves being dragged through town were somehow not connected to the system of slavery—and indeed, to the entire economy of antebellum America. It’s not entirely new that morally unconscionable forms of work are pushed out of sight.

But I do think it’s one of the marks of the modern world and, I suggest in the book, of “civilization,” in the sense that Norbert Elias, a sociologist, described it in a two-volume book called The Civilizing Process. What Elias says is that the civilizing process is about pushing disturbing events behind the scenes of social life. It’s not that civilizing means stopping barbaric or disturbing practices; it’s more sanitizing them, concealing them from view. He talks about how, as the threshold of repugnance in society rises, this impulse to push these things away also rises. We live in a society where that insight is borne out. Just consider the fact that jails and prisons and industrial slaughterhouses are so hidden from view—not just from the public’s ability to walk in there, but from the airwaves. We almost never see images and footage of what goes on. That is very central to the organization of dirty work and the perpetuation of it.

JL: Most of the workers you interviewed in this book are American residents, though toward the end of the book, you touch on the murkiness of the global supply chain. How do overseas workers factor into your analysis?

EP: A lot of Nation readers and people generally in the United States are familiar with the idea of outsourcing—outsourcing jobs, and specifically outsourcing low-paying, unpleasant jobs. Outsourcing is very much what has happened with the dirty work in high tech. Cobalt mining, crucial to powering the ion batteries that the cell phones and laptops we all spend so much of our days looking at, takes place in the Congo. It’s invisible to us; the global supply chain is very dispersed and removed from what the consumer at an Apple Store sees or touches. On that level, reliance on foreign labor is very much part of how dirty work is structured.

I also think, though, that this is a book about America. But there too, I think you have a kind of outsourcing. If we look specifically at industrial slaughterhouses, meatpacking is an industry that has come to rely more and more on immigrants, refugees, and undocumented workers. That’s not an accident. It’s part of a deliberate labor strategy that the meatpacking industry embraced starting in the ’70s, and increasingly employs today, in order to have a malleable, easily exploited workforce that suffers incredibly high rates of physical injury and injury to the dignity of the worker. In one of the slaughterhouses, I interview undocumented workers from Mexico who were denied bathroom breaks during their shifts—who had to soil themselves as they were working in order to avoid being yelled at by the supervisors on the lines. That goes beyond just physical injury and is a terrible assault on workers’ dignity.

JL: You contrast dirty work with jobs in finance and tech, despite the awareness among many who work in these sectors that certain things they do on the job may not be aligned with their values. Why are those jobs not necessarily dirty work?

EP: When some people hear “dirty work,” Nation readers in particular, they’re going to think, “Oh, you mean Wall Street—the folks who cooked up all those fraudulent financial products that caused the meltdown of the entire economy in 2008.” Those are certainly morally troubling activities, but I don’t think that the people who carry them out are as prone to feeling stigma, shame, marginalization. The psychic and emotional tolls that these workers in the fields I look at suffer from is different. One of the reasons is that, if you work in a high-paying white-collar profession like banking, and you think, “Oh, this is kind of shady. I maybe shouldn’t be doing this,” your ability to leave and wash your hands of it is far greater. It’s much easier to exit the situation.

The second thing is that wealth in America and material success have always conferred virtue on the people who rise to the top. For bankers, corporate lobbyists, and tech workers, who have very high-paying jobs that are highly desirable in terms of the salary at least, it’s much easier to find a sense of self-worth.

To offer a specific example, let’s go back to the financial crisis. After the financial crisis, a lot of media outlets pointed the finger at Wall Street bankers in ways that members of the profession were really unaccustomed to. But the banking industry did not hang its head in shame after the financial crisis. To the contrary: Many outspoken leaders in the industry were indignant about the fact that the government was daring to try to pass things like the Dodd-Frank legislation. That is a reflection of a kind of meritocratic hubris—I’m borrowing that phrase from the philosopher Michael Sandel—where the people at the top of the pyramid feel that the rest of the society should look at them as pillars of virtue, not as people who should feel ashamed or stigmatized. Things like stigma and shame are a function of power. We have to look at those things through the prism of who has the power in society and who doesn’t.

JL: What is the antidote to the powerlessness experienced by the workers you profile?

EP: I want to be very clear that I think the best antidote is a collective one. My own conclusion is that just as the responsibility for dirty work is shared, the only way to have better conditions in some of these industries, or to stop some of this dirty work altogether, is by acting collectively.

To go back to the form of dirty work that I start the book with—warehousing mentally ill people in jails and prisons—there’s no individual solution for that. One mental health aide at one prison can potentially quit and not feel implicated anymore, or one compassionate citizen can decide to help a person in their community who doesn’t have access to services and has been cycling through jails and prisons by giving them a meal or taking them to a shelter. But that won’t solve the problem, because the problem is a structural one. As a society, we have failed to build a remotely adequate public mental health system and have effectively criminalized mental illness and poverty. That’s the root of the problem; that’s why horrors at the Dade Correctional Institution I write about in the book are happening. There isn’t much public outrage about the lack of affordable mental health care in this society. Without that, I don’t think much changes.

I’m not a policy analyst, and I don’t sketch out in detail what policies would alter the things I write about, but I do have an analysis, and the analysis has led me to conclude that it’s only through collective political engagement that these things can change.

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