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THE VALUE AND DIGNITY OF WORK.
By Trish Patrick in All Sorts
work for a living wage would be life enhancing for all spcietyTHE VALUE AND DIGNITY OF WORK.
Defining the word 'work' seemed a reasonable starting point for this article, but on looking up my trusty Oxford Dictionary I discovered several columns of very fine print covering every possible aspect of 'work'. Perhaps the most general meaning of the word for my purposes is...'Expenditure of energy, striving, application of effort to some purpose.' It is something we all do be it paid or unpaid. From prehistory to the present day, in large part, the survival of humanity has relied on people expending energy and applying effort to find food, shelter, warmth and safety, the basic requirements of life. Down through the ages, as humanity organised into communities, work has incrementally become organised and ultimately (mostly in the western world) industrialised, and more recently globalized. There is no way in an article of this size can I begin to describe the complexities, significance, consequences good bad and neutral of elements mentioned in the previous sentence.
Suffice it to say the global economy is driven by the work of humanity in the form of paid employment or unpaid and slave labour. Sitting behind that sentence is an amalgam of blood sweat and tears, success, fulfilment, and abject poverty.
Whether we like it or not work, both paid and unpaid, defines us to a greater or a lesser degree. Often one of the first questions we have for someone is 'what do you do?' then probably subconsciously make a value judgement about that person. As a society we have a hierarchy of value around types of work and the types of talent we prize. This is reflected in the remuneration package, and consequently the social class assigned. People in lower value work and possessing lesser value talents often find themselves at a huge fiscal and social disadvantage.
(Therein lies another equally important topic for a later article).
Obviously I'm speaking in generalities, but that doesn't invalidate the facts. As an Industrial Chaplain, for twenty five years I was privileged to work alongside people in the trades, food industry, finance, heavy industry, engineering, sheltered workshops, intellectually disabled, health, clergy, justice, city/town councils, education, and research. My work also included being alongside people who had been made redundant, often because of workplace closures. This aspect of my experience brought into sharp focus the sometimes catastrophic results of people losing a major source of their identity and life support, the dignity of work afforded them. The loss of work for any reason has huge and ongoing consequences for the individual, the family, and society regardless of the type of work lost. However, the lowest paid are usually the most vulnerable to bad outcomes.
What does the 'dignity of work' really mean. For some of us it’s hard to imagine there being a lot of dignity in some types of work like collecting garbage, doing dishes, working in a laundry, prepping food, people carers, that labour intensive work that most of us would find really challenging. Or for a parent at home with children cleaning up after them (and their partners no doubt), unpaid of course.
I believe the dignity lies in the contribution made to the greater good of society. Over the previous five or six decades there has been a huge emphasis placed on the 'I' rather than the 'we', brought about in part by the rise of youth culture, the contraceptive pill, the growth of individualism and liberal economic theory and loss of a collective morality. Now, the markets are the dictators of how society is to be constructed.
We live in a consumer society where the amount of money earned is the measure of personal success and GDP considered the most important indicator of a successful economy. That's fine, but it doesn’t take into account the importance to the community of the less glamorous work carried out....the essential services! The contribution and participation toward the common good of the lowest paid worker is the foundation of any healthy society. Do the low wages of essential workers reflect how we value their contribution? They are possibly one pay packet away from financial disaster...not a good place to be.
Its hard to feel dignified when one's back is against the fiscal wall.
Lockdown brought the 'Essential workers' into sharp focus. They were the ones, mostly the lowest paid, who took risks to keep our communities functioning. Again, theirs was ESSENTIAL work.
The reluctance of employers to pay a living wage is extremely short sighted. Of course it could mean that profit margins might not be as impressive, but the downstream effects would be life enhancing for society in general. The 'common good' cannot not be a concept consigned to history.
Whether we like it or not WE are in this together. Democracy and freedom can only survive in an environment where the 'we' takes precedence over the 'I'. On the face of it this might seem a simplistic concept, but we ignore it at our peril.
Right wing political movements are born out of despairing low paid, low employment populations who are feeling left behind and unheard. Fuelling the right wing in the USA are the despairing and fear-filled low paid communities grasping at the empty promises and rhetoric of Donald Trump and his minions. Feeling unseen and unheard is demoralizing and they feel they have nothing to lose.
The Third Reich had its origins in these conditions. Have we learned nothing?
“One day our society will come to respect the sanitation workers if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage is, in the final analysis as significant as the physician, for if he doesn't do his job disease is rampant.
All labour has dignity.” Rev Martin Luther King, Jr.