In this guest blog, Tim Thorlby argues that the dignity of work is one of the most pressing issues for our generation. 17/09/2020
Michael J Sandel, one of the world’s leading philosophers, recently delivered the 2020 Theos Annual Lecture. He was discussing his latest book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
At a time of deep political divisions, rising inequality and in the midst of an alarming global pandemic, his choice of subject matter may seem a little quaint to some, perhaps even a trifle academic – a reflection on the nature of ‘work’ and what it means to us; surely not now, Michael, we’re busy.
In fact, Sandel, a professor at Harvard University, is putting his finger on an issue which he believes resides at the heart of many of our present social and economic difficulties. It is an issue which he argues has been ignored by governments of all shades for decades, and which has consequently led to what he describes as “a political failure of historic proportions”. (p19)
We have forgotten that the nature of our work, and the dignity of that work, still matters.
In recent years, we have seen the rise of populist nationalism in many countries, giving us – amongst other things, Sandel argues – President Trump in the USA and Brexit in the UK. These significant political ruptures are usually explained with reference to globalisation and the way that this powerful set of economic forces, hand in hand with technological change, has led to job losses and outsourcing to other countries, as well as significant economic migration. In turn, this has led some communities to feel ‘left behind’ and disempowered, whilst other groups in society seem to profit from the change. A growing sense of inequality has fuelled a desire – sometimes a rage – for change from below.
We are familiar with this story now. Sandel notes how many commentators have tended to portray populism as either a protest against those job losses (and a failure to adapt to change) or, worse, a xenophobic reaction to immigration.
But Sandel digs deeper into the discontent and identifies what he believes is the core issue at stake: how the dignity of work for many has been undermined over the last forty years. Workers have not only lost jobs and incomes, but also self–esteem. They have been left with jobs and working conditions which do not garner much respect, or allow for much dignity. Sandel argues that if we are to address the current political upheavals and tackle our growing social divisions, we must address the core issue – the need for fairly paid and dignified work for all.
I am sure that Michael Sandel is right. I am the Managing Director of Clean for Good Ltd, an ethical office cleaning business set up to deliver dignified work for London’s cleaners – a sector renowned for low pay and poor working conditions. Our business was established in 2017 by a group of churches and charities as a practical response to the way that some cleaners were being treated in the City of London. We heard stories of low pay, poor terms and conditions, of cleaners left standing outside in the rain before their shift started, because their client did not want them on the premises for any longer than necessary.
Our way of delivering dignified cleaning jobs is to directly employ our team (with no zero hours contracts), pay them the London Living Wage, offer terms and conditions above statutory minimums and to invest in training and management. No charity, no luxuries – just dignified jobs, fair pay and respect. This may not seem exciting or glamorous. The dignity of work may be an elevated idea, but it is achieved through such mundane realities as employment contracts and small print; the devil is often in the detail.
Issues may vary between sectors and cities. The media regularly report stories about other kinds of undignified work – whether it is gig economy delivery drivers, or warehouse workers or hotel chambermaids. It is not hard to see how such treatment might fuel resentment.
In a year when we have seen how much we rely on the UK’s ‘key workers’ – including many in low pay sectors – there is surely now added moral urgency to addressing this historic challenge. It turns out we rely on these people.
After three years of operation, Clean for Good has grown, won awards and proved itself a competent and commercially viable business. We are one small illustration of how it is possible to re–create dignified jobs in even the most challenging sectors.
We are also an example of how the Church’s response to social problems does not have to be charity–based. It sometimes seems as though the only instrument in the Church’s social tool box is ‘charity’ (or ‘welfare’) but sometimes what people need is actually better jobs – with fair pay, respect and dignity – not a hand–out. Sometimes the best answer to a social challenge, as we have seen here, is ‘better business’ and ‘dignified jobs’. If the Church wants to build the Common Good, it will surely need to engage more fully and positively with the world of business in the future.
The dignity of work is one of the most pressing issues for our generation. Michael Sandel has helpfully and elegantly argued the case. It demands a response from every employer and every consumer. We may need higher standards in some sectors. We will need to pay more for some goods and services. There will be a cost. But we may also find a way to begin to heal the deep divisions in our nation.
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