Are you a bead maker or a boob flasher?

As unemployment rises we tend to think more about work.  I guess it the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” thing.  Why we work? How we work? What we get out of work?

Yesterday I heard philosopher Alain de Botton talking about his new book, The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work. A lot of the discussion centered around jobs such as the person who fixes the machine that makes the part that makes the box in which the plastic bags are shipped that hold the cookies that people eat.

Ask that person what their job provides the world?  What sense of accomplishment it gives them? They might not have an answer.

Industrialization and technology have separated many of us from what we actually do.  Our jobs are so specialized we don’t see the products of our labor.  de Botton explores what this means to our sense of self-worth.

I appreciate this perspective because it looks at things from the workers’ point of view.  One of the questions I’m often asked when I talk about “Where Am I Wearing?” is “Do the garment workers take pride in their job?”

I’m afraid I don’t have a great answer for that.  I usually mention the film “Mardi Gras: Made in China” that focuses on a Chinese Factory that makes Mardi Gras beads.  The workers thought they were making jewelry that adorned decent folks trying to look nice.  When they learned that the beads were “Show Me Your Boobs” currency whatever pride they might have had in their job was lost.

Here’s the trailer to the movie:


Here’s an excerpt from de Botton’s book:

Not that many consumers care to dwell on where their fruit has come from, much less where their shirts have been made or who fashioned the rings which connect their shower hose to the basin. The origins and travels of our purchases remain matters of indifference, although –- to the more imaginative at least -– a slight dampness at the bottom of a carton, or an obscure code printed along a computer cable, may hint at processes of manufacture and transport nobler and more mysterious, more worthy of wonder and study, than the very goods themselves.

Workers don’t think about the people who buy their products and consumers don’t think about the people who make the products they buy. Things just magically appear and we buy them.

How should we feel about that?

I take my crack at that question in my book, but right now I’d like to yield to Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickel and Dimed:

(Guilt) isn’t that what we’re supposed to feel? But guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame – shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others.  When someone works for less pay than she can live on – when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently – then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.  The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society…To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.

A couple of questions:

Who provides the greater societal function: the person who pushes the paperwork to buy or sell the thing or the person who makes the thing?

Are you the guy who makes the thing that makes the thing that puts the thingamajig on the doohickey?

What greater good does the job you do provide society?

Have you ever flashed or been flashed?

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Fortunately for me, I’ve never been a flasher. I’ve always been way too modest. But I can see how a young American girl who has never gone to sleep hungry, never had to work on anything more backbreaking than a computer keyboard could end up that way.
As a mother I’m trying to instill in my own little girl the idea that our bodies are too important to be traded for plastic. She was born with advantages (not nearly as many as some, but plenty in any case)and with her advantages there is responsibility.–That’s my job and it’s frustrating but fulfilling.
I saw part of this documentary…and felt too ashamed when the young workers were watching the video that showed what their work wrought to continue.

Kelsey says:

JLP, I think there is some middle ground to be had between flashing and bead making. I’m glad to hear about your modesty.

I hope to raise my own little girl the same.

Let your voice be heard!