Workers are Humans Too

A year ago I was interviewed by Gulf News about my volunteer work at the Somali Social and Cultural Centre here in Abu Dhabi. A friend of mine whom I ...

Mar 15, 2014

A year ago I was interviewed by Gulf News about my volunteer work at the Somali Social and Cultural Centre here in Abu Dhabi. A friend of mine whom I met at the Centre confessed to me the outrage he felt when he read the published article: “I hated you when I read that,” he told me. “I thought you were evil.” I was also angered by the article for its misquotations and the strange distortions of my statements. Yet evil felt like a strong word. What exactly was so offensive about an article on volunteer work and the Somali community of Abu Dhabi? Gulf News’ article about poor Somalis made me and the other volunteers at the Centre look like the saviors that I know we wanted to be and drew a fictional divide between us and our Somali students. Pity is often hurtful.
I realized even volunteer work with the purest of intentions can be patronizing to those we try to help. Regarding any person or group of people as something to be rescued is ironically just as dehumanizing as the abuse we seek to combat. Many of us accuse those who disregard workers’ rights of treating human beings like animals — I think it is possible to do the same when we reduce someone to the hardships they have suffered. In our interactions with workers, do we treat them well because they are human beings whose inherent worth we respect or because we are trying to atone for the exploitation of which we assume they are victims? I find myself asking if I think of myself as their equal or simply a superior more benevolent than the ones in control.
There is a particular way many of us think about workers, a particular way in which we treat them. Passing a group of construction workers toiling away, a friend has frequently said to me, “I just feel so bad for them.” I have consistently observed an excess of politeness when students speak with the cleaning staff that I don’t see when they interact with our peers. This leads me to believe that we are treating workers as workers, not as people with their own distinct personalities and flaws. By self-monitoring our behavior, we paradoxically perpetuate the socially constructed division my friend from the Somali Centre found so offensive.
Our kindest actions can reinforce a social hierarchy. Think of the way we treat professors as professors and professors treat students as students. Although they are usually polite to us, professors still do not treat students as their colleagues because both students and professors carry a label that denotes a hierarchy of status. Professors do not — usually — abuse students, but this does not mean we are equals.
This is what I wonder: Is our behavior towards workers similar? Do we want to improve the status of workers in this country by equalizing them or simply by continuing a hierarchy that encourages better treatment? Do we simply want to better their lives, or do we want to dissolve this hierarchy altogether? If we are in favor of the latter, I believe our mindsets and behavior must change. Despite the politeness that often accompanies the denomination of “workers,” we must recognize them not as workers but as simply human beings.
“Worker” has become a loaded term meant to conjure a certain image in the mind of the listener. We all know this image: It is a sad, brown-skinned man in a work uniform. We use it for art projects; we say “worker,” and reactions are never neutral. When we talk to people who look like workers, some of us are extremely polite, deferential to a degree that is inconsistent with our normal behavior.
But “workers” do us no favors — they are men and women paid to do a service just like many others in the world. When we treat a migrant worker better than a professional at Tamkeen out of pity or to compensate for some mistreatment he might face, we are perpetuating a hierarchy. This implicit pecking order may not itself cause abuse, but it can easily be taken advantage of.
This is my call for conscientious kindness: a metacognitive approach to understanding why we care about workers. The objective: to erase the instinct to treat these people as we see them and refer to them, as workers; to reach the point at which we instinctively treat them with the same kindness we show all humans.
I am starting to understand why my friend called me evil. I felt generalized pity when I should have felt individualized respect. I should treat all people with the basic courtesy that has become habit to me. But just as the respect I show other students can increase or decrease depending on how they treat me, so should the respect I feel towards each individual worker I come across. I don’t like one of the members of the cleaning staff. He is not that nice to me, and I am not that nice to him. Maybe a better person would give him the benefit of the doubt, say he’s having a bad day, but I’m not one and I wouldn’t do that for any professional who is not my direct superior — why do it for him? I am rude to rude cab drivers. I am nice to nice cab drivers. I am rude to rude people, and I try to be nice to nice people. Workers are people: They are not art projects, they are not outlets for pity, they are not any more or less human than any of the other people in our lives. When we do charity work for them, it should come from the same place from which we do charity for our friends: respect and love for another human being.
 Juliana Bello is a contributing writer. Email her at
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