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Good work, human dignity and the dreaded call from nursery

Good work, human dignity and the dreaded call from nursery

Following a recent report on low pay in the UK, Chine McDonald reflects on disparities, inequality and how good work is not just about money. 21/04/2023

I live in fear of the calls from nursery. 

The moment I see its name flash up on my phone screen, my mind is immediately spinning, my heart racing as I anticipate the request to come and pick our baby up because he’s got a temperature, or has projectile vomited, or ‘just isn’t himself’ and that either my husband or I will need to pick him up asap. These calls of course could come at any point during the day. I could be anywhere in the country. My work diary is so full that there is never a good time for this to happen. 

Over the past few weeks, we have navigated the norovirus that swept its way through the family, suspected hand foot and mouth disease and other sicknesses with our baby, and several days where my eldest son has been out of school due to school strikes, Easter holidays or inset days. 

It’s all been incredibly tiring. The juggle is real, as they say. I’ve had to deal with my own tiredness and irritability, the self–consciousness of how I might be seen by my (very supportive) team and colleagues when having to make last–minute changes, or no–shows. 

But never in all this juggling did I for one minute fear that I might lose my job, or not get paid because I couldn’t work or had to leave work early to pick up my children. 

This is not the case for many of Britain’s lowest paid workers, as highlighted in the Resolution Foundation’s Low Pay Britain: Improving Low Paid Work Through Higher Minimum Standards report launched this week. It’s part of their Economy 2030 Inquiry using lessons of the recent past to explore how the UK’s economic strategy going forward might be reformulated. 

Even if an agency worker in a factory could afford the eye–watering cost of childcare, they might think twice about answering the nursery’s call in case it jeopardised their chances of being called in for a shift ever again. Abandoning the factory line for a family emergency might mean not being able to feed that family. 

In a survey of more than 2,000 private–sector employees, 56% of people earning less than £20,000 a year said they wouldn’t be paid if they had to miss work for a day due to a family emergency. Comparatively, just 12% of those earning £60,000 or more wouldn’t be paid if they had to attend to their sick child, or their ageing parents, or their partner with a terminal illness. 

This is clearly unfair – a symptom of an economic system that values some people’s family lives and well–being more than others; where in the main it’s the best paid workers who have the added benefits of dignity and security. 

Is this really the kind of society we want to live in; the kind of people we want to be? 

A significant part of employment legislation over the past 30 years has focused on pay and a drive to increase the minimum wage – which itself has been a great success story; the UK’s minimum wage is now among the highest in the world, with only France, New Zealand and Korea ahead. 

But good work isn’t just about pay, as demonstrated by the reality that job satisfaction among lower earners has declined as their wages have risen. Speaking at the Resolution Foundation launch on Wednesday, Financial Times journalist Sarah O’Connor described how employers have stripped away other benefits to manage rising wage costs, often including passing burdens and risks onto employees. If a factory machine stops working in the middle of the night, then agency workers might not only not be paid but face the indignity of having to sleep on the factory floor while they wait for the first bus to take them home. Instead of providing free hot meals to staff and transport home, employers in the hospitality and leisure industries might cut the free food as well as the ride home. 

These are very specific benefits that some employers may currently provide or have been able to in the past, but in essence we are seeing a decline in the warmth, common decency, dignity and security that make work bearable for some. 

The thing is, this is not just about how much we are paid nor is it about what we actually do. The findings show that instead the focus should be on what it means for all of us to be human beings treated with inherent dignity and worth, having the opportunity to find meaning in what we do for a living, a sense of autonomy, power and voice in our places of work, and be able to contribute to the mutual flourishing of our communities. 

Most of us would agree with this positive vision for work, but there’s also much in the Christian tradition to help us here – about human dignity, about fair labour, and about our interdependence. The Catholic Worker Movement’s Dorothy Day once wrote: “A philosophy of work is essential if we would be whole men, holy men, healthy men, joyous men. A certain amount of goods is necessary for a man to lead a good life, and we have to make that kind of society where it is easier for men to be good.”

The problem is, as the Resolution Foundation points out, when it comes to a national picture of work, the bad outweighs the good. 

At Theos, we too found lack of job satisfaction and fulfilment among UK workers in our 2021 report Just Work: Humanising the Labour Market in a Changing World, in which we conducted YouGov polling on perceptions around work. Among a list of statements about work, 33% agreed that “work is just a way of earning to provide for life’s necessities”, compared to 16% who agreed that “I feel that in work I’m doing things that are really meaningful” and just 10% who agreed that “I believe my current work is part of my calling and vocation”. 

Good work includes a recognition of the human person as central; a place in which people can feel they are spending their time meaningfully, where they are valued as whole people who are part of families and communities that are interconnected rather than workers who exist in isolation; a place where people shouldn’t have to choose between dealing with life’s emergencies and being paid.


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Photo by La-Rel Easter on Unsplash

Chine McDonald

Chine McDonald

Chine is Director of Theos. She was previously Head of Community Fundraising and Public Engagement at Christian Aid. She has 16 years’ experience in journalism, media and communications across faith, media and international development organisations.

Watch, listen to or read more from Chine McDonald

Posted 21 April 2023

Parenting, Work


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