Compounding the taxing nature of their work, low-wage laborers are often forced to feel like low-class citizens both by their employers and by society at large. Though Barbara is only temporarily inhabiting this world, she too is unable to escape the sense of shame she comes to feel from the way she is treated as a low-wage laborer. This is especially the case for occupations in which the economic gap between employers and employees is highly visible, such as housekeeping. Barbara describes how demeaning it feels to be scrutinized by a homeowner while scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees. At these homes as well as at places like Wal-Mart, videocameras and other tools—including the ubiquitous drug test—serve as means of surveillance, making workers feel that they are under constant suspicion and are not to be trusted.
In a broader sense, Barbara shows how low-wage workers are made to feel both invisible and unwanted, a shameful underclass, by the rest of society—even as society is in vital need of their labor. Customers at restaurants pay little attention to the fact that their waiters and waitresses are overworked and underpaid, failing to tip and making unreasonable demands. Barbara also seeks to disprove the kind of worldview that understands poverty as the fault of the poor. She shows, for instance, how difficult it is to eat healthfully while poor, even as many look disapprovingly on the obesity of the working poor.
Partly as a result of this shame, Barbara shows, low-wage workers often band together and support each other. Barbara’s coworkers cover each other for bathroom breaks, offer each other a place to stay, and swap tips for how to deal with chronic pain stemming from their jobs without health insurance. These kinds of relationships reveal a solidarity that helps to combat the social and personal disapproval placed on such workers from outside.
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Shame and Solidarity Quotes in Nickel and Dimed
I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proposition, but somewhere along the line, in the tunnel vision imposed by long shifts and relentless concentration, it became a test of myself, and clearly I have failed..
What these tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine, since the “right” answers should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of hierarchy and subordination.
How poor are they, my coworkers? The fact that anyone is working this job at all can be taken as prima facie evidence of some kind of desperation or at least a history of mistakes and disappointments […] Almost everyone is embedded in extended families or families artificially extended with housemates. People talk about visiting grandparents in the hospital or sending birthday cards to a niece’s husband; single mothers live with their own mothers or share apartments with a coworker or boyfriend.
The hands-and-knees approach is a definite selling point for corporate cleaning services like The Maids. […] A mop and a full bucket of hot soapy water would not only get a floor cleaner but would be a lot more dignified for the person who does the cleaning. But it is this primal posture of submission—and of what is ultimately anal accessibility—that seems to gratify the consumers of maid services.
So ours is a world of pain—managed by Excedrin and Advil, compensated for with cigarettes and, in one or two cases and then only on weekends, with booze. Do the owners have any idea of the misery that goes into rendering their homes motel-perfect? Would they be bothered if they did know, or would they take a sadistic pride in what they have purchased—boasting to dinner guests, for example, that their floors are cleaned only with the purest of fresh human tears?
Yes, I want to help Holly and everyone else in need, on a worldwide basis if possible. I am a “good person,” as my demented charges at the nursing home agree, but maybe I’m also just sick of my suddenly acquired insignificance. Maybe I want to “be somebody,” as Jesse Jackson likes to say, somebody generous, competent, brave, and perhaps, above all, noticeable. Maids, as an occupational group, are not visible, and when we are seen we are often sorry for it.
There’s no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut her own deal. The intercalation of the drug test between application and hiring tilts the playing field even further, establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove. Even in the tightest labor market—and it doesn’t get any tighter than Minneapolis, where I would probably have been welcome to apply at any commercial establishment I entered—the person who has precious labor to sell can be made to feel one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.
Today [Melissa] seems embarrassed when she sees me: “I probably shouldn’t have done this and you’re going to think it’s really silly…” but she’s brought me a sandwich for lunch. This is because I’d told her I was living in a motel almost entirely on fast food, and she felt sorry for me. Now I’m embarrassed, and beyond that overwhelmed to discover a covert stream of generosity running counter to the dominant corporate miserliness.
The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled.”
The money taboo is one thing that employers can always count on. I suspect that this “taboo” operates most effectively among the lowest-paid people, because, in a society that endlessly celebrates its dot-com billionaires and centimillionaire athletes, $7 or even $10 an hour can feel like a mark of innate inferiority.
What surprised and offended me most about the low-wage workplace (and yes, here all my middle-class privilege is on full display) was the extent to which one is required to surrender one’s basic civil rights and—what boils down to the same thing—self-respect.
My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers—the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being “reamed out” by managers—are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re actually worth.
The “working poor,” as they are appropriately termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.