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A hard look at the "dirty work" nobody wants to celebrate this Labor Day

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In his new book, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, New Yorker writer Eyal Press profiles the workers we won't see politicians sidling up to for photo ops this Labor Day. He writes about drone operators, prison guards, poultry plant workers, and oil riggers. They do our dirty work and, as Press shows, they pay a price for it.

Flor Martinez, a Texas poultry plant worker, devours painkillers at the end of her grueling shifts. Stephen Stone's dangerous job on the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig puts him in the way of a massive explosion that almost cost him his life. But Press is most interested in documenting a kind of hazard that is not typically accounted for in government safety reports: what he calls "moral injury." He borrows the term from military psychologists. It describes the impact of having to carry out tasks that violate a person's core sense of self.

Those psychic injuries can take a physical toll. Harriet Krzykowski, a mental health counselor, is so traumatized by the moral compromises her harrowing prison job entails that her hair begins to fall out in clumps. An analyst with the military's drone program suffers headaches, night chills and joint pain. Press' project is to ensure that a complacent public — those of us who consider ourselves at a remove from the jobs he describes — takes responsibility for our part in creating the conditions that allow "dirty work" to occur.

The book, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has particular resonance in a post-COVID world that has highlighted the divisions between those forced to work in hazardous conditions and those with the luxury to shelter at home. It also provides a framework to examine a decades-long war in Afghanistan staffed by a military whose casualties are increasingly borne by those from less affluent communities. Would the occupation of that country have continued for so long if the sacrifice that accompanied it had been more broadly shared? Press sat down with Capital & Main for a phone interview about his book.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Capital & Main: Can you start us off by defining "dirty work"?

Eyal Press: Dirty work in my book refers to an unethical activity that society passively condones but doesn't really want to hear too much about…It's work that causes substantial social harm, harm to other people or to the environment or nonhuman animals. The second feature is that it causes harm to the people who do it because it makes you feel tainted and implicated in this harm.

You begin the book with the story of a mental health worker who is keeping quiet about abuses that she's witnessing at a private prison in........

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