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The Dignity of Work

This abstract is from an insightful article published by Beautiful Enterprise about positive organizational transformation, which at its core includes the Partnership Economics ethic of mutuality. You can read the full article here and we encourage you to do so.

In an article, Tim Thorlby explores the importance of ‘dignity at work’. It is a phrase which is growing in usage, but what does it mean? He draws on his own personal experience of working and explores a biblical perspective on why it is relevant to all of us. He gives examples of companies where dignity is missing. Workers being paid below the legal minimum wage on a regular basis. Wages incorrectly paid. Pay withheld in an effort to retain services. No interaction with a manager. Complete isolation at work. Exposure to the elements. Also positive examples. Fair pay, fair hours – a Living Wage Employer. Shifts are agreed which are fair and reasonable and deliverable. No zero-hours contracts or short-cuts. Good people management - meet, train and manage every member of the team on a regular basis, face to face. Management as an investment. Mistakes and issues dealt with calmly and fairly, using proper processes. Ethical materials used. People are properly equipped to do their work. Slowing down to see the person - service for customers focuses on human contact. We also lose dignity at work when we forget that jobs are done by people, not robots. It is not inevitable – there are employers who seem quite capable of operating differently – it is a choice, or sometimes, just neglect.

Here is the biblical perspective:

All work matters, from farming to advanced manufacturing, from social care of the elderly to cleaning, from business services to academic research. Jobs of the ‘head, hand and heart’ all matter and not just for economic reasons: they possess inherent purpose and dignity not entirely measurable by wages or prices. At the heart of any biblical understanding of ‘work’ is the very simple but essential idea that all workers are people, not just economic units, that they have inherent value and therefore cannot just be employed or used as a means of benefiting others. We are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and are not to be objectified. The Old Testament Law goes further and makes it clear that ‘labour’ is not something that should just be freely bought and sold without limits; careful protection is needed to prevent the exploitation of people. Any economic agreements or contracts are always subject to the more fundamental social covenants – the mutual obligations – that we have with each other within society. The market is important, but it is a tool which should serve society’s purposes, not the other way round. Any market-based contractual relationship which undermines our wider social relationships, our place in society or the dignity of the person, is a market failure. For work to be considered dignified, Better Capitalism would say there are three essential elements: Fair pay – All work should be fairly paid. That means paid at a real living wage or more, with wages paid correctly and on time, and appropriate support for times of illness or family distress. Work should take us out of poverty and allow for a decent life. The Bible, as well as most philosophers and economists since, regularly and clearly uphold the entitlement of workers to be paid, paid on time and paid fairly. Fair expectations – the nature of the work should be clearly understood, clearly bounded and undertaken freely. A job should be transparent in that a worker should be able to clearly see what they are committing to undertaking and there should be boundaries – not a charter for exploitation at the whim of a manager. The abuse of any kind of power, including by managers of workers, is clearly condemned in the Bible and by millions of thinkers since. Agency – all work should leave the worker with some room for decision-making and exercising judgement and using their skills and experience. All work should have at least some scope for development and flourishing. Work should not be monotonous and dehumanizing, but allow for satisfaction. The vision for the people of Israel in the Old Testament was for each household to farm their own land and ‘sit beneath their own vine trees’ (Micah) – a vision of freedom and agency. Of course, a worker proving he or she can’t make good decisions is a different story.

Tim concludes that dignity at work is something which every worker should experience. Every employer can shape this through the design of job positions, working culture, as well as pay and conditions. It is not beyond us collectively. It is not beyond your company. It is not beyond you. Ultimately, we have to decide what sort of businesses we want, what sort of marketplace we enjoy, what kind of society we want to prosper. When we begin to invest in the dignity of work once more, then we are opening the door to a more human and more compassionate national life. How can you be the change you want to see?

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