I am used to returning home late - not necessarily from office. But for some quirky reason or the other, I don't see them during other (and for me, more tolerable) seasons. It's only during the nerve-numbing Beijing cold that I see them huddled in circles on bustling-by-day streets that turn ghostly at night. The idea of working in the open during those deathly cold hours sends the iciest shudder up my spine even in the comfort of a well-heated taxi.
There is always a buzz around them: a truck fitted with a giant contraption pumping or sucking in air or water, sewage being dumped onto another vehicle, a curb-cleaning behemoth on countless wheels standing still. The cacophony of instructions adds a somewhat musical note to the eeriness of the scene.
It is only when you get close that you realize a manhole is open and either someone is already down in the dark recesses of a giant sewer or is about to do so. These are men who defy the weather gods to keep our sewerage running. They clean the sewers so that we can go on dumping as much fluid waste as possible. They act as safety valves that release (and inhale) toxic gases so that the sewers don't explode and we can let as much toxic chemicals as possible flow into our drains at home, office and factory.
These surgeons who ensure the free flow of blood through the veins of our cities never figure in our discussions because they are different from workers employed in factories (or farms). Or is it because the fruits of their labor cannot be seen or quantified? But hasn't labor's relationship with production changed? How do we define labor-product relation in most of the service sector, or to be more precise, the information technology industry?
True, these are times of changing economy, but "political economy hides completely the estrangement of labor in its real existence in that it does not treat the direct, unmediated relationship between the laborer (labor) and production". Marx says: "Labor produces wonderful works for the rich, but it produces poverty for the worker." Seeing the men brave the frostbiting cold to keep the sewers flowing we can also say labor produces not just wonderful works that (eases and) enriches our lives, but also oblivion for the worker.
In school, we were taught the difference between a citizen and a civilian. We know a citizen is a person who is loyal to the country, has social responsibility and fights (or is ready to fight) for the rights and safety of his fellow human beings. A civilian, on the other hand, may not take up such responsibilities despite enjoying all the privileges offered by society.
Not all of us living in this (or for that matter any other) country may be its citizens in the legal sense of the term. All of us, however, are part of the planet Earth. And being a citizen or just a civilian is a matter of personal choice - only that a conscientious civilian (sorry, an oxymoron) is expected to give up his/her privileges.
But as citizens, we have to think about every other being in society, not least our sewer cleaners, and stop excess or unnecessary waste from flowing through our drains. The waste, especially toxic waste that comes from household detergents and liquids we use to clean our utensils, clothes, and toilets and sinks, not only make life more suffocating for our sewer-cleaning brethren, but also flows into our lakes, rivers and seas to pollute our atmosphere further. So before blaming world leaders for failing to reach a climate deal to save the world, can we look into our souls (and actions), please?
(China Daily 11/20/2009 page8)