Business Times

Dignity of labour

It is too loud that we don’t hear it anymore.

Though not spoken of so ardently, like we do when we talk about leadership, teamwork or motivation, ‘respect’ is in the heart of being human; respect for oneself and others. With respect comes a sense of dignity in who we are, in what we do and how we contribute to the greater society.

Lack of respect for all types of work or jobs from different social strata, is something that we live with; hence, might be immune to. The absence of ‘dignity of labour’- why some jobs are considered to be prestigious, while others to be infra-dig, is one of the main underlying causes of unemployment in the Third World countries.

As defined by society, the desired jobs - the lawyer, the accountant, the marketer, eventually have their offices in a place called the ‘City.’ Even after being guaranteed that a job in the village would pay them better money than a job that they may find in the ‘City,’ the young workforce is still reluctant to work in the village. It is as if there is no esteem in working in the village.

Hence, the city becomes a better place to earn money, to look for work, to live and to be on par with the rest of the world. The city signifies advancement, change, fun and competition. But there is an illusion behind this concept of the city; the street lights and sky scrapers. The village provides us with the food we eat and exports we earn money from. What is it that you and I produce in the city that makes us self-sufficient and self-sustainable? Food for thought - village can live without the city but the city can never carry on without the village.

The societal hierarchies have been evolving through the caste system that eventually translated into, or combined with the class system as a result of colonisation and English language that created a barrier in our psyche. The mind likes labels and categories, and as a result of a ‘gap,’ we constantly classify people and put them into boxes. Similar to the gap between the rich and the poor, the distance between the ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled,’ ‘competent’ and ‘incompetent,’ ‘cultured’ and ‘uncultured’ are widening. What is to be blamed? Our school curriculum, university system, unspoken social systems and people’s attitudes? Will university students be able to do a cleaning job or a waiter’s job in a restaurant in their spare time to earn extra cash?

In the first world countries, people get paid more for jobs considered to be physically demanding and also where the risk factor is high - from janitors to construction workers and truck drivers to oil rig workers. Hence, salary scales play a huge role in what is perceived to be appealing. Will there be hope in that arena in our country, at least where there is an adverse impact on health and safety?
The lack of respect or dignity is not all to do with blue collar jobs. It is also prevalent when we play ‘know it all’ and refuse to listen to others: even at higher levels when we sometimes fail to respect our peers, bosses and direct reports. Ego is a dangerous mind-game, as it feeds on superiority, putting people down, power, ownership, pet notions, private prejudices, blinkered thinking and one-dimensional achievement.

Some organisations have taken steps to reconcile these differences at different levels. You may find in organisations, where the structure is flat, where the office is a campus with no bosses but mentors, where everyone sits at one table for lunch - factory workers to top managers, where there is no one to make tea and no peons to make photocopies, where people are given an opportunity to drop their ideas into a suggestion box and where these ideas are implemented, where management decisions are well communicated and where information is available to everyone through knowledge management systems.

Think about the companies who train and supply cleaners, who train and provide care-takers, nurses and various security personnel. An ‘aaya’ is now a professional care-taker, a ‘watcher’ is now a guard. By providing, shift work, a uniform and a company to belong to, people are given a sense of identity, a collective voice and a sense of belonging to a larger establishment. By separating this relationship, these companies have largely reduced the slavery that could occur due to the remnants of a feudal system.

Children are the architects of tomorrow; thus it is imperative that the issue is addressed through the education system. If we do not see every job for what it is worth in the value chain, we sure would have limited access to the bigger picture. And from a psychologist’s point of view, it is time to unload some of our mental blocks, the stereotypes, and dysfunctional attitudes that are mostly redundant in some parts of the world. You know that change begins with you.

(The writer is a Business Psychologist who works in Colombo and can be reached at

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