‘Dirty work’ but someone has to do it

Natasha Slutskaya is a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management with the School of Business, Management and Economics at the University of Sussex.

Natasha Slutskaya

Natasha’s research story

For Natasha Slutskaya, research into ‘dirty work’ – jobs seen by others as ‘distasteful’ – is more than an academic exercise. For three months she worked on the bin lorries in London, earning the trust of her co-workers.

“Originally, my aim was to contribute to the academic literature on dirty work,” says Natasha, “but the research became much more than that.”

One of the first challenges Natasha faced was that the workers taking part in her research were reluctant to talk. They didn’t want to share their experiences because of their expectations of being viewed negatively, and distrust of a female academic. There was a feeling among the workers that their voices were not going to be heard even if they shared their views.

So Natasha rolled up her sleeves and worked alongside refuse collectors in London for three months. “It was hard on the shoulders,” she recalls, but it helped her to gain the trust of the people in her study.

While working with them, she discovered that the men took pride in dealing with the dirty aspects of their jobs and in performing physically demanding tasks.

What they struggled with was the lack of public understanding of what pressures they work under and the disrespect shown them. They told Natasha that they found other people’s negative perceptions hard to deal with, as these are often bound up in ideas of class and low status.

I feel that I have a responsibility to provide a voice to people who might not otherwise have the confidence or the opportunity to make themselves more visible.” Natasha Slutskaya
Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management

One of the workers’ comments was particularly memorable to Natasha. “They [the public] look at you and they think you’re a load of old scum really, you know, low life, to put it bluntly...but it’s an important job; without us the place would be swarming with rats right now, we’d be knee-deep in rubbish.”

Confrontation with workers’ hardship raised for Natasha the question of reciprocity – or mutual benefit – from research. “I felt I had a responsibility to give them a voice, to challenge perceptions and to try and draw more public attention to their concerns.”

A breakthrough came when she commissioned a documentary maker to make a film with the workers.

“We didn’t mention research in the film, we just let people talk. They spoke about their lives, how they ended up in their jobs, their hopes, their aspirations. It was tremendously moving.”

She then showed participants the film and it increased their trust. “It demonstrated we were genuinely interested in their views and would treat their stories with respect and integrity. In turn, they opened up more and we gained even richer insights. It’s so important to have this kind of reciprocity in research.”

And Natasha is delighted her research has started to change perceptions and influence decision-making. She invited council bosses and representatives from private contractors to see the film and talk about the findings. Many of them had tears in their eyes while they watched. They admitted they had never thought about their workers in these terms, never considered the same pressures and stresses.

Council managers have now recognised the need to educate the public. “It’s not just about making sure workers deliver a service,” says Natasha. “The council needs to explain how difficult it is to do these jobs against a background of cuts, reduction of the workforce, and lack of respect for these essential services.”

Natasha feels very strongly that we hear a lot about economic inequality but we don’t talk enough about invisibility of certain groups in society. As one of the workers put it, “The public want the job done, they want their streets spotless, but they don’t want to acknowledge you. They want the fairies to come in and do it, you know, these little pixies that magically appear overnight and keep it all nice and clean. They want it done but they don’t want to see you.”

“I feel,” concludes Natasha, “that I have a responsibility to provide a voice to people who might not otherwise have the confidence or the opportunity to make themselves more visible.”

Find out more about Natasha’s research.

Last updated: 27 April 2017

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