The gift of work

By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ, 17 August 2020
Image: Nicola Fioravanti/Unsplash.


Amid the disruption of predictable life wrought by the coronavirus, governments have focused on jobs. Jobs lost in the response to the virus, and jobs created as we emerge from the crisis. The focus is worthy — behind each job lost is a person whose life has become anxious and uncertain. The language, however, is concerning. Defining the challenge as one of creating jobs expresses an understanding of work, the inadequacy of which the coronavirus has laid bare. It has deep roots in a long cultural history.

Within the Christian strand of Western culture work was seen as a punishment that followed the Fall. In Paradise people would not have had to work. When driven into the world as we know it, however, they had to earn their bread by sweat and tears. In many societies heavy work was done by slaves, while their wealthy owners could dedicate themselves to higher activities. In Athens, citizens could participate in the public life and rich culture of Athens because they possessed slaves to undertake manual labour. Among educated Romans, the ideal human condition was one of leisure in which they could devote oneself to the life of the mind. This demanded independent wealth or patronage.

The simultaneous devaluing of manual labour as punishment and the reliance on it to build the prosperity that enabled emancipation from toil shaped an attitude that has endured. People in government see no contradiction between making the conditions of ordinary workers as unpleasant as possible and punishing and shaming those who cannot find work.

In agricultural societies, work was often set within a pattern of stable relationships between landowners and workers that expressed mutual responsibilities. As these relationships became fragmented by the privatisation of public lands, however, those relationships were eroded and became one-sided as wage-slavery in the Industrial Revolution. Into this world of changing relationships the word ‘job’ first appeared. It referred to short term work undertaken for personal gain. Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary is a mine of moral judgments based on traditional social relationships, defined a job as ‘a low, mean, lucrative busy affair.’ Every word of the definition expressed distaste.

Jobs were unsocial, and often antisocial, affairs that traded security for short-term financial gain, and did the dirty work of an unjust social order. The distaste was expressed also in the use of ‘job’ to describe public positions awarded on the basis of whom you knew and not on your qualifications — jobs for the boys, as we might say today.

That, of course, was then, and now is now. The salient elements in this story are the ambivalent attitude to menial and manual work by people who are emancipated from it, and the recurrent tendency to strip away the relationships that give workers security and respect their dignity. Work is then reduced to a financial transaction between a powerful employer and relatively powerless and insecure employee. In Johnson’s terms, work becomes a job, stripped of its setting in a wider framework of social relationships and mutual responsibility. Precisely because it eats away at the complex and rich set of relationships on which society depends, it ultimately imperils the narrowly economic relationships on which prosperity depends.

At one level it does not matter whether governments speak of work or of jobs. It may be no more than a question of semantics. It does matter, however, that they reflect on and address the effects that contemporary reduction of work to jobs was having even before the coronavirus arrived. These include treating employees as contractors, the expansion of casual employment in universities and firms, the license given to gig enterprises whose business model is based on casual employment, the lack of government interest and of regulatory action in the face of systematic underpayment of workers, and the Pollyannaish definition of employment to include people in part-time employment and underemployment. The insecure and dependent nature of work in Australia and the gross inequality of wealth to which it has contributed were expressed in the inability or reluctance of people to spend, and so in the inability of firms to sell the goods and services they produced. If jobs rather than work are again to be the focus of policy, it is hard to see how the economy will grow equitably.

The coronavirus has made evident the inconsistency between the esteem in which workers in different industries are held and the value of their work to the community. Meatworkers, people working in nursing homes and hospitals, people delivering food and cleaners are the least protected and most scorned of workers, but in this time of crisis the community has relied on their self-sacrifice and service far more than on that of lawyers and managers. That mismatch surely demands that the remuneration and conditions of people in unfashionable work be adjusted to match the importance of what they do.

The distinction between work and jobs raises serious questions about attitudes to work, to unemployment and to the value placed on different kinds of work. A proper attitude to work (and to jobs) sees it as much more than an economic contract between employer and employee. Work is at the intersection of many interlocking relationships that define human beings. It is not just something that people do, but forms part of their identity and gives meaning to their life. A qualified but unemployed immigrant stands taller at home and in his community when wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase to work. A young woman unable to study and without work grows as a human being when finding work in a supermarket or café.

Through work, we form relationships with the world outside ourselves, immediately with our fellow workers, then with supervisors and managers, with the people whom our enterprise serves and with our world through the value of what we do. The wage we are paid, too, is significant not merely because it can buy things, but because it gives us freedom to do so. Work is a symbol of the value others see in us and builds confidence in ourselves that helps us to grow. The economic aspects of our working relationship are only a small part of their human value.

Another way of putting this is that in all relationships, including economic relationships, there is an unquantifiable element of gift. In work, an employer recognises the gift that the person employed is in consenting to work. The employee recognises the gift that the employer is in recognising his value as a human being. The mutual gift entailed in the economic relationship entails a duty of mutual respect.

This aspect of work, of course, cannot be legislated for fully, but it dictates an attitude that must find expression in policies and regulation of work. Counting jobs is not enough.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services. He is also consulting editor of Eureka Street

Reproduced with permission from Eureka Street, a publication of the Australian Jesuits.


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