🚜 Good work and "good jobs." 🗄
What do we do if we can't all have "good jobs" but there's plenty of good work to be done?
This is the fourth and final part in a series about my experience harvesting cilantro with migrant workers. If you’re just joining us for the conversation, you can find the previous pieces here:
After a few weeks of harvesting cilantro, I am convinced that fieldwork is good work. Fieldworkers figuratively and literally add both substance and spice to life. Without their work life would be more bland and boring; their work promotes human flourishing. Those who toil in the field are doing honorable and noble work and there is clear dignity in their work. Work like this is what keeps society functioning and makes life worth living.
And I think boring, mundane work should be framed in terms like this more often.
The work is also beautiful. The days are long, the work is repetitive, and the continuous kneeling is painful, but there is something peaceful about it. You feel a little more connected to the earth. It’s a constant reminder that the earth provides for us and that in our work we provide for others.
We worked as the sun came up each morning and as the sun went down each evening. The sun’s first rays provided warmth in the chilly mornings and the afternoon breeze provided respite in the heat of the day. We worked through drizzly mornings and afternoon sun and it was a reminder that we are all a part of and subject to nature.
There was joy in this work. There was the joy of hard work; the joy of movement; the joy of physical work. Looking back over a row I had finished harvesting and seeing the pile of packed cilantro boxes provided joy to me. The first few days I was focused solely on the physical pain and how in the world I was going to go fast enough to pack nine boxes each hour. But as I got the hang of it, I found myself resting in the work. When I quieted myself I could sense the steady joy of the work.
In other jobs I’ve worked I’ve always thought the legal requirement of a 10 minute break was pretty silly. In this work I cherished those 10 minutes. The opportunity to stand up and stretch my legs and just rest felt incredible. And working long, hard days six days a week made the meaning and importance of a sabbath clear.
This was good work.
I was working in the field a few days before Christmas when a family with three young children pulled up next to our foreman’s truck. I was close enough to watch and hear what they were saying. They explained that they wanted to drop off some gifts that the fieldworkers could give to their kids for Christmas. The foreman agreed and the family unloaded three large bins into the bed of his truck. As the family walked back to their car I heard the mom say “thank you for picking our food!”
When it came time for our lunch break, the fieldworkers hustled over to the truck and started picking out books and toys for their kids. There was quite the haul and they were quite excited; I can only imagine how excited their kids were on Christmas morning.
It was incredibly thoughtful and kind of the family to freely give those gifts to the fieldworkers and their families. But something about it doesn’t quite sit right with me. This family acted charitably towards these migrant workers, but why did the family choose them? I don’t know the answer to that question, but my sense is that the family gave the gifts because they thought the fieldworkers were less fortunate. Perhaps they felt that the low pay, the difficulty of the work, the low status of menial labor in our society, or the tenuous legal status of these workers was unjust.
I believe that charity is a poor substitute for justice. It was charitable and generous for the family to give those gifts. But if there was some sort of injustice, those gifts didn’t do anything to remedy the injustice.
All of the fieldworkers were kind and patient with me as I tried to keep up with them and did my best to communicate with them in my broken Spanish. They were positive, worked hard, and didn’t complain throughout our long, hard, monotonous days. As far as I could tell, their employer treated them well and fairly. They were also payed comparatively well — the average immigrant to the United States earns four times as much as they would in their country of origin for the same work.
Yet there is still something that seems unjust in this situation. These fieldworkers work incredibly hard and incredibly long hours for relatively low pay with little hope of advancement. They are accorded relatively low respect and status in society because of the menial nature of their work. In other words, they don’t have “good jobs.”
At the same time, it is very clear that they are doing good work. But society’s view is that this isn’t a “good job” to have. What do we do when good work and a “good job” are in tension with one another? What do we do when not everyone in society can have a “good job?” What do we do with the fact that there’s necessary work out there that has to be done to support society and human flourishing but that isn’t a “good job?”
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I have some ideas. I think we could respect and honor the unglamorous work that makes society and culture possible a little more. I think we need to think about how we can structure public benefits if it isn’t possible for everyone in society to have a “good job” that comes with all those benefits. Because without people doing that good work we would all be worse off.
In moderation, Matthew