More than a day’s work

Ratna Raman

THE words, ‘manual’ and ‘menial’ have origins in different languages. ‘Manual’ (from Latin ‘manualis’) indicates activity that belongs to the hand. As an adjective, manual work describes, any and all skilled activity performed by human hands. Manual labour is the actual physical work undertaken by people, not leased out to beasts or machines.

Manual jobs enhance, celebrate and dignify labour. New emphasis on ‘handcrafted’ and ‘artisanal’ draw attention to the special nature of manual effort. ‘Manuals’ are booklets providing information on a whole range of subjects. Countless machines and gadgets have routinely substituted and replaced manual labour. While history is witness to the technological changes that have enabled the substitution of manual work through machines and gadgets, manual work itself has been perceived unfavourably. ‘Menial work’has always been positioned as inferior to manual work.

Deriving from the French word ‘mesnee’ (household) the adjective ‘menial’ found its way into Middle English. ‘Menial’ work was defined as work requiring very little skill or intelligence. ‘Menial’ (noun) describes domestic helpers and drudges, who undertake monotonous work that is poorly paid.

Menial work also exists in work-spaces in the public sphere. Recognising menial work as essential for the survival of societies,innumerable industries provide all manner of gadgets to make this work easier. In hierarchical societies, the elites dissociated themselves from participation in essential everyday activities that enabled smooth functioning and well-being. Time consuming physical labour which did not yield money was termed menial.

Despite the quantum shift to classless societies, menial work continues to be incorrectly viewed as requiring minimal skill or intelligence. A large proportion of human beings are still engaged in poorly paid work. Disadvantaged communities in India continue to battle with the aftermath of hideous practices such as ‘manual scavenging’.

We must re-examine the unequal paradigms (models) in place. Manual work is real work that must form part of the essential services sector. Able adults should redistribute among themselves the chores for daily functioning. Substantial monetary returns should become mandatory, whenever manual work is outsourced. Large swathes of humanity, bogged down by drudgery, must receive substantial payment in order to easily access both leisure and pleasure.

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