Dignity in “menial” jobs

While we emulate the West in most things, why do we ignore some of their best traits like dignity of labour, asks Yashasvini Rajeshwar

Updated - November 09, 2011 09:32 pm IST

Published - November 09, 2011 08:56 pm IST

When will our society get over the "dignity" issue?

When will our society get over the "dignity" issue?

There is a boy I once knew who quite seriously wanted to spend some time interning as a waiter in Saravana Bhavan. He wanted to just serve customers, take orders and quite literally, feed people. And yet, there was so much opposition.

Why should a boy who has studied so much and studied so well resort to “such” jobs? What is there to gain from spending time in the restaurant joint? Did he believe he had to earn his way through college? And if so, was he disrespecting his parents' ability to educate him?

No one seemed to understand the two basic facts to his case. One, that he wanted to experience “normal” jobs and secondly, that it gave him a sense of independence. To the rest of the world, it was “inappropriate” for a boy of his background and intelligence. It was not dignified enough.

Historical references

Dignity of labour is a concept that goes far back into the history of man, irrespective of whether we look at religion or science. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” reads a line from the Bible. There is a sukta in the Rig Veda which glorifies the concept of farming by one and all, irrespective of social strata.

In Indian history, we have the presence of people like Guru Basavanna who spent years of his life dedicated to preaching the morals of social equality despite having to face social ostracism.

And yet, somewhere over the last few centuries, a sense of moral superiority has crept into most of us and we are riding quite the high horse.

We believe cleaning up after ourselves is “dirty”. We believe some tasks to be menial and below us. We believe there should exist a separate class of people to get their hands dirty instead of us. We believe that once you achieve some sense of upward social mobility, these are some of the things you leave behind as you rise up to a better quality of life.

Why is it that, despite all our efforts to emulate the West, we ignore some of their best traits? Why is it okay for an Indian teenager to work at a gas station in the U.S. but not at a petrol pump here? While it is easy to brush these questions off and blame it on our “backward” or “developing” society, there is probably much more than what meets the eye.

Cultural divide

To begin with, social relationships in the average Indian society are incomparably different from those in Western societies.

A famous illustration of this happened during Aishwarya Rai's interview on the David Letterman show a few years ago when Letterman, with some amount of incredulousness, asked her whether she still lives with her parents. The former Miss World responded that she did, and that she also did not need to fix an appointment to have dinner with her parents. While the video became viral on YouTube, it also played a vital role in exposing the huge cultural divide that exists between the two worlds.

This very same cultural divide can also be used to explain why the work ethic of our youth is so different.

In a society where education beyond high school is often self-funded, teenagers often resort to any and all jobs that they can find in order to earn some quick money.

In our own country, on the other hand, parents often pay for their children as long as they can afford to, after which point the picture changes with the children beginning to take care of the parents. Familial interdependency is a fundamental characteristic of Indian society.

Another possible reason for this lack of interest to take “basic” jobs is the fact that in our society, the monetary compensation is often poor. This inability to be financially self-sufficient definitely leads to second, third and fourth thoughts before opting for this solution.

Indian scenario

Indian parents are known to mollycoddle us. They fund us until we are more than capable of funding ourselves and they are always our fallback option.

With so much security, both financially and socially, no teenager would see the need to earn the hard way, by working tables or filling tanks. Furthermore, even if the teenager did see the need to work, the importance of social standing will be waved in his/her face and the idea is likely to wilt away before it even buds.

Dignity of labour is a concept that is not native to our work ethic or social ideas. It is not something that Indians possess as a cultural trait, unlike in other societies where it is almost a rite of passage. This might be something for us all to think about. When we emulate the West for just about everything and look beyond our shores for approval, why not pick up some of their better qualities as well? That way, we would have the best of both worlds. This way, we truly would be the land of the Mahatma.

Yashasvini is a student of IIT-M

We react

I would work in a petrol bunk if it eventually came to that. It isn't as safe as it would be in the U.S. or anywhere else in the west but at the end of the day, everything is a matter of how you carry yourself. The way you approach whatever you do and how you protect yourself from the outside world is what actually matters in a job like this.


In a country with a billion people, there is no lack of job opportunities. Yet, a large chunk of youngsters are unemployed and/or dropouts. Why? Though it is clichéd to compare India with the U.S., it is not alien for an average American youngster to work at a gas station or a pizza joint to pay his fees. How often does it happen in India? Even if someone does resort to such “ordinary” jobs, it is because s/he doesn't have a choice. This is because of our notion of what a “good” job is. I think we are negating an important aspect of the deal here — job satisfaction. The next time you need quick cash, remember it is not the job itself but the satisfaction that we draw from it that counts! Then every job will be a “good” one!


In my opinion, part-time work is not very popular in India because of the dominant cultural mindset in our country. Also, such jobs have not gained value or respect. The younger generation today is fascinated by a fancy designation rather than look at their actual role. But mark my words, we will learn over time.


The concept of working in small-time jobs abroad bred from necessity, and then became a culture. We in India have neither the necessity to do it, nor does the culture exist. The ideas of independence are very deep-rooted in European and American youngsters, probably stemming from practices like owing their parents rent-money for living in their houses from the moment they turn 18. If our parents began demanding rent, I'm pretty sure we'd begin working in petrol bunks and pizza places too.


Though there are youngsters working part time in some food joints, this cannot be said of other professions in the same league. Even if Saravana Bhavan pays more than McD or KFC, we prefer to work only in places befitting our “dignity”. Why is it so? In the U.S, youngsters work anywhere to earn money for college. They do not differentiate between jobs. That is how it should be. If the youth are the future of the country, we must learn from around the world and understand that the aim of a part time job is to gain experience and a little extra cash. This can be achieved by working anywhere at all. Our obsession to work in foreign enterprises must be suppressed and we must take pride in working close to home.


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