Last week twenty nine men were killed by a gas explosion in a New Zealand coal mine.
Their bodies are still deep under ground – it could take months to pull them from the blackness — but when a second massive explosion tore through the mine, it became clear no-one could have survived.
Everyone knows about the glass ceiling – the invisible barrier to high-flying women’s careers. But the glass ceiling has a dark twin no-one mentions.
Most men don’t even have careers, they have jobs, and men’s jobs are often the worst jobs of all. The New Zealand miners died where most men spend their working lives, not above the glass ceiling but beneath the dirt floor.
The disaster in New Zealand is only the most-recent mining accident to hit the headlines. In October, 33 men were rescued after spending two months buried alive in a Chilean copper mine.
On Tuesday, a day before the second explosion in New Zealand, another 29 men were pulled from a flooded Chinese coal mine.
They were the lucky ones. According to the BBC, it’s estimated mining accidents kill about 12,000 people each year. And by people, of course we mean men.
And that is the point. If mining were a global multi-billion pound industry in which only women worked and died in their thousands, the recent disasters would have triggered outraged editorials across the newspapers.
As it was, in all the coverage of the accidents in Chile, New Zealand and China, the gender of the victims was simply taken for granted, a matter of no significant interest.
Often, when men make up the victims of industrial accidents, the word “men” is never used at all, in favour of “workers” or “people” — in the process the special dangers faced by men are rendered invisible and politically unimportant.
Meanwhile, no-one is left in the slightest doubt of the unique burden of women’s work.
We routinely acknowledge the drudgery and low-paid status of cleaners or home carers, but when it comes to recognising that the filthiest, most-dangerous work is done by men, we simply turn a blind eye.
And let’s be clear about this. Men’s work isn’t just boring and unpleasant, it’s often fatal. Construction, mining, heavy industry, off-shore fishing — all of the most-dangerous jobs are done by men.
In Britain one of the worst industrial disasters of the 20th century has been deaths from asbestos-related disease. Of 2,249, deaths in 2008, 1,865 were male. By 2016, the annual number of male deaths is predicted to peak at over 2,000.
The danger with this argument is that it descends into a bitter race to become the biggest victim. But the fact is, if we recognise the burden of women’s work, we must do so for men’s as well.
As it stands, men are not only forbidden from demanding any acknowledgement for the literally back-breaking work they do for their families, they are often told they are little more than dependent children – how often is that comparison made in adverts and by cheap chat show hosts?
In this distorted world view, the labourer, miner, off-shore fisherman and scaffolder, as well as the man working 60 hours a week in an office for his family, are nothing more than burdens on their wives and girlfriends.
The glass ceiling, dirt floor metaphor is an accurate one – one is an obstacle no-one can see; the other is a barrier no-one can see beyond, and out of sight is out of mind.
I’d rather be a coal miner’s wife than a coal miner any day of the week.