I am writing at this moment in a large airport. Thousands of people work at jobs associated with this airport, and few of the jobs actually befit a human being.
I traveled to the airport in a hotel shuttle. On the way I told the driver, a Peruvian immigrant, about the talk I had given this weekend and about my vision of a more beautiful world, and at one point, by way of illustration, I said, “Here you are driving back and forth to the airport all day — surely you must have moments when you think, ‘I was not put here on earth to do this.’”
“Yeah, that’s for sure,” he said.
I can’t help but think the same as I watch the cashier at the airport kiosk, typing in purchase items and handing out change and saying, “Thank you sir, have a nice day,” and the man going from trash can to trash can, emptying them into his cart and changing the plastic bag, silent and sullen, wooden-faced. What kind of world have we created, that a human being spends all day doing such tasks? What have we become, that we are not outraged by it?
The men and women at the ticket counters and gate counters have slightly more stimulating work, work that might take a few days or weeks to master, rather than a few hours, but still, their work falls far short of engaging the ability and creativity of a human being (although it might be satisfying for other reasons, like service to others, making people happy, meeting people, etc.). The same goes for the flight attendants. Only the pilots, air traffic controllers, and mechanics do work that might reasonably occupy the learning capacities of the human mind for more than a few months.
Strange it is to me, that the very worst, most brutal of all these jobs also receive the lowest pay. I understand the economics of it, but something in me rebels against that logic and wants the baggage handlers, drivers, and cashiers to be paid more, not less, than the pilots.
Without these menial workers, this airport and this society would not run in its current form. My travel depends on their labor, labor for which they are paid barely enough to survive.
And why do they consent to such work? Certainly not because of any aspiration to spend their lives doing it. If you can ask one of them why they do it, they will tell you, if they are not too insulted to speak, “I have to do it. I have to make a living, and this is the best work I could find.”
So my trip today is only happening because people are doing jobs they don’t want to do, for the sake of their survival. That’s what “making a living” means. A threat to survival is, essentially, a gun to the head. If I force you to labor for me under threat of death, then you are my slave. To the extent we live in a world that runs on the labor of many people doing jobs that are beneath human dignity, not just in airports of course, but in factories, sweatshops, plantations, and nearly everywhere else, we live in a slave world. Anything we obtain from the labor of slaves comes at an insupportable spiritual cost: a painful void or disintegrity deep within that makes us ashamed to look people in the eye.
Can we bear to shrug this away and resign ourselves to living in a slave world? I want to be able to look every man and woman in the eye, knowing that I do not benefit from their indignity.
Source: “A Slave World,” from Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein