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Life lessons: Time to change attitudes to manual work and worth

I read a quote that said: “If you think you’re too big for the small jobs, then maybe you are too small for the big jobs.” The quote was a play on words to state that someone who thought certain types of work were below them didn’t have the mentality, maturity, or experience to earn a high-profile job.

We have two problems in the Gulf countries when it comes to manual labour or blue-collar work. We have youth who think that work is below them, then we have those who might want to do blue-collar work but are afraid of how they would be perceived by others. Both are equally troubling.

Why can’t we just view work as work? Why do we have to let an occupation define who a person is and what they are worth? Furthermore, why do we have to assume that a person who has a blue-collar job is struggling to make ends meet? More importantly, how do we change that mentality in our society?

Take the example of a garbage collector. If there were dramatic changes in the UAE’s economy and Emiratis had to start looking towards manual labour for work, I think being a garbage collector would be the last place they would look. If we can make waste collection a respectable profession in the UAE and the region in general, I don’t think it will be much harder to do the same for other forms of manual labour.

On season five of the hit show Khawater, the host Ahmed Al Shugairy visited Japan to learn about the waste-management process and how garbage collectors approach their work. The first thing I noticed was that some of these “waste-management specialists” were wearing a shirt and tie underneath their overalls as they collected garbage. They had a level of self-respect and pride in their job – they were on a mission to keep their city or town clean. It takes leadership and organisations to support and communicate that message, which in turn gives employees, in this case garbage collectors, and society in general a different view of that type of manual work.

The second issue is getting youth to value all types of work. I don’t think anyone is born with the viewpoint that certain types of work matter more than others; it is programmed into them by their parents and society. In Japan, children are taught how to take care of their rubbish by garbage collectors, who visit schools and show them how to manage their waste and why it is important to do it right. In younger classes, children are given little garbage trucks to play with, which allows them to make connections and understand the role that garbage trucks play in their lives. This builds a strong level of respect for garbage collectors and any other type of manual work, for that matter.

Lastly, we need to tackle the assumption that people who work in manual labour are poor. Doing manual labour does not mean you can’t have a happy and comfortable life. There are countries where garbage collectors can make up to US$60,000 a year, about Dh18,000 a month. That is higher than my starting salary at my first job, and higher than a few office jobs that I hear about. I have read stories about garbage collectors in certain parts of the world, such as Scandinavia, who enjoy a good quality of life, not much different than their counterparts who work in large companies and office jobs. And this goes back to a government that provides them the support services they need – free education and health care, for example.

My first job was sweeping floors on a ship. It wasn’t something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life, but I have to admit it was quite therapeutic. Plus, seeing the clean deck at the end of my workday always gave me a strong sense of achievement. I am sure there are many people who would love to work with their hands. I am sure there are people who would love to clean up the city and feel a sense of pride in that work. They are worried about what others may think, and if that continues, many forms of important work within our society will always be viewed as something below us.

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.

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