As the cover story for Mere Orthodoxy’s third issue, I wrote on how we value care work, and the thin line between humility and degradation. A care worker knows that they are not easily replaceable, and they can’t rely on the kinds of labor power that unions use to shut down a factory.
Many workers stay for overtime or take on tasks that go outside the work they are compensated for, because they know their charge intimately and are moved by their need. This can be framed as a kind of emotional blackmail — the worker has their “no” taken away. But Kittay sees an alternative way of thinking about it: the worker wants to be able to say “yes” to their charge’s need, but the “yes” can be too costly for them to be free to offer.
Workers who care directly for the vulnerable have the relief of knowing they aren’t working what David Graeber terms “bullshit jobs.” They can see that their work matters. Without their help, their charge could not use the bathroom, might not eat, would die. But that means they lose the leverage other workers have to strike, engage in work stoppages, or sometimes even to quit.
In Full Surrogacy Now, author Sophie Lewis claims that abortion is the kind of strike available to surrogate mothers. When they face exploitation, Lewis suggests, they can refuse to work, which means severing the connection between themselves and the child who depends on them, delivering a corpse where their employers hoped for a child. Few consider this option, no matter how dire their circumstances. Care workers are close to the people entrusted to them; they learn to see the world through their charge’s eyes in order to understand their needs.