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Recognising the human value of work



Lockdowns last year forced us to think about many things we had taken for granted: the predictability of our health and lives, the security of our work and remuneration, our freedom of movement, the relative social value of different occupations, the necessity of flexible work arrangements and the profligacy of government debt. Also questioned were the beliefs that economic competition is the key to a prosperous society and that businesses have no need of a social license.

Main image: Nurse at protest holding sign reading 'Clapping won't help pay my bills' (Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash)

As the danger from COVID-19 seemed to recede, however, political policies and the economic settings and assumptions on which they were based took on their previous priority.

In Victoria the latest lockdown has prompted fresh questioning of the business-as-before approach to life after COVID-19. In particular it urges renewed reflection on the connection between the remuneration of work and its importance to society.

During the early lockdowns we had heard much praise of our brave health workers and security staff who continued to work in hospitals, nursing homes, quarantine and in delivering goods. We had also come to realise that their work was insecure: they were typically paid low wages, and so needed to work in more than one place in order to support themselves and their families. These conditions proved to be a major cause of the high rate of infection and death in nursing homes. The social importance of their work seemed totally inconsistent with the remuneration and conditions attached to it.

That inconsistency and its costs, both economic and social, have again been evident in the recent Victorian lockdown. COVID-19 has again spread into nursing homes as the Federal Government reversed its earlier prohibition of work across facilities, and placed no priority on the vaccination of staff and residents. It has become clear that esteem for low paid workers in aged care and for the value of their work for society does not prompt a commitment to raise their pay and adjust their conditions. In fact the social value of their work is considered less important than minimising costs by holding down their wages.

What factors then are considered to be relevant? Behind technical considerations lie two related cultural attitudes. One highlights the relative merit of employees. People who have spent years in study, passed competitive tests at every level, and been employed by prestigious educational institutions or firms, in this view, merit a high income due to their achievements. They belong to an elite group of worthy people equipped to hold demanding positions, mainly managerial, and so deserve to be highly remunerated. Those who have supposedly not proved their merit, including immigrants whose second language is English, particularly women, are then limited to lower paid positions. Their work may well involve very demanding, even dangerous, physical labour but it remains unnoticed, unesteemed and lowly paid.

The second attitude to remuneration highlights the economic value of work, defined by how much money it contributes to or saves business or government. Managers who can preside over a bank when it makes a billion dollar profit deserve a million or so in salary. Similarly, a lawyer who might save a company from a million dollar fine or tax bill might also command a high salary. Judged by these standards the economic value of work performed by health and security workers is small. They are plentiful and their work is not profitable. So they are paid little.


'We must ask not only about the financial costs of workers, but also about the human value of their work.'


Neither of these criteria for remuneration takes account of people whose work benefits society in other than economic ways. Each bases remuneration in economic competition and achievement, whether by appealing to merit displayed in competitive tests or to the capacity to make or save money. Any commendation that workers may receive for their contribution to society will be sentimental in scope — it will not gain extra coin or suitable conditions. These must be awarded only on strictly economic criteria.

The return of COVID-19 has again revealed the internal contradictions in these attitudes. The adamantine refusal on narrowly conceived economic grounds to raise the wages and make sustainable the conditions of poorly paid people threatened great economic damage by encouraging the spread of COVID-19 with its attendant restrictions of economic activity. The consequences of such meanness cost the economy far more than would reform of their wages and working conditions.

The remedy for this systemic failure to safeguard economic growth and social benefit does not lie in one-off payments or in ad hoc adjustments to conditions. It lies rather in rethinking attitudes to remuneration and working conditions by setting them within considerations that transcend the economic. Work needs to be seen as a human activity in which people are respected as persons who, together with others, help build a just and prosperous society for all its citizens. Remuneration is not measured only by the individual merits of the persons involved or the profitability of their work, but also by their broader contribution to society.

In this matter, as elsewhere, good economic management can only be assured when those responsible for it consider questions that go beyond the economy. We must ask not only about the financial costs of workers, but also about the human value of their work. That should be a central factor both in their remuneration and in the regulation of their working conditions.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Nurse at protest holding sign reading 'Clapping won't help pay my bills' (Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, economy, work, employment



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Existing comments

Attributed to T S Eliot are the words "If you want to write poetry you must earn a living some other way". I think Eliot was also an editor or some other occupation to do with writing. He didn't become a plumber or an architect. If your ideas were implemented in society, Andy, and it would be most beneficial if they were, it would mean a complete turn-around of the status quo. Powerbrokers may have to become something else. Or someone else in the real world.

Pam | 10 June 2021  

The irony of the way people are remunerated is that the further away a worker is from the daily life of another person, who may be ill or neddy the more they are paid as a say CEO, professor or banker. But if you are dying or sick or lonely whom do you want to be with you? Someone with tertiary qualifications or just human empathy and warmth? It is as if those 'improving the economy and increasing the standards of living' have to separate themselves from humans as much as possible. As usual, follow the money.

Michael D. Breen | 11 June 2021  

This is a very good essay by Andrew Hamilton and identifies many workers in a variety of occupations across our industries. He also identifies migrant workers who play a large part in these industries. For many workers in the history of Australia in the past the only way they have been able to improve their working conditions and Pay has been to form trade unions. Many of the migrant workers are not aware of the history of unions and are easily exploited by employers because of that ignorance. A Christian Worker Movement would be able to inform many of these workers of our history in this issue. I would be happy to discuss the formation of CWM with those interested.

Kevin Vaughan | 11 June 2021  

This idea is explored in the first chapter of Michael Lewis’ ‘The Premonition’ where the Deputy Chief Health Officer in Santa Barbara, though having both a medical degree and Masters in Public Health, is paid a third of what they could earn as a GP. Charity Dean did work in reportable infectious diseases and found her effectiveness thwarted by not being taken seriously. And then the current pandemic struck …. Thanks Andy for inviting reflection on important matters

Louise | 11 June 2021  

Yes, Andrew, this is a discussion we sorely need to have. I am reminded of a medical Intern I spoke to many years ago. Having just finished five years of medical study and a year working as an Intern, he was moving from Adelaide to Sydney, not to further his medical career, but to earn megabucks as a futures trader. Why do we pay people more to gamble with other people's money than we do to heal sick people? Or why does a bus driver earn little more than the basic wage when (s)he holds the lives of 60 people in their hands, and can easily be charged with manslaughter from a momentary lapse of concentration? I remember theoretical research in the 70's that showed we needed a maximum income differential of 9:1 to create incentive - even in a capitalist economy. This would make an absolute maximum income of $400,000 pa. Anyone receiving more than this is a welfare sponger on society.

Peter Schulz | 11 June 2021  

Terrific article, Andy, with every response an inspiring one! Without 'spoking the wheel' I wonder if more is not to be made of the peace of mind that some low-wage earners have. When I hopped off the academic bandwagon a few years ago - before being prematurely pushed - I looked around for 'productive' meaningful work to do. A former student of mine who was multiply physically disabled and in great need, asked if I would become their carer. The non-material rewards, in terms of stress abatement and the development of rich interpersonal relationships with the disability sector far outweighed the quotient derived from the sum total of the amounts I had hitherto invested in scholarship and climbing the academic ladder. However, this shouldn't justify the exploitative conditions of low-paid migrant workers and, accordingly, I would like to give Kevin Vaughn's unionist suggestion my unreserved endorsement. Where to next, Kevin?

Michael Furtado | 12 June 2021  

Perhaps what's needed, as a precursor to the recognition of the 'human value of work' is a reworking of the 'Australian Settlement', that vision of a nation that embodied the values of 'fairness, decency and respect' that underpinned the politics of early 20th century Australia. The particular tools (White Australia, Industry Protection, Wage Arbitration, State Paternalism and Imperial Benevolence) that were used at the time would need replacing, but we might all be better served by the adoption of a vision rather than the blind pursuit of a laissez faire approach complete with exploited 'guest workers' (read 21st century Kanakas). See https://cpd.org.au/2005/06/updating-the-australian-settlement/ for further thoughts.

Ginger Meggs | 14 June 2021  

Like just about everything else in this society the value of work has been significantly dumbed down towards mediocrity. The quality of academia has been diminished with the mushrooming of undeserving doctorates, masters degrees and professorships. We have seen yet again this week that the Order of Australia awards have become a joke and removed any sense of genuine service or contribution to society without personal reward. It is now possible to do an appalling job and be honoured at the highest levels. We have reduced our beautifully expressive language to illogical clap trap and imported Americanisms. Our politicians resort to embarrassing depths of gimmickry, corruption and meaningless one liners. We plunge towards the bottom line where dubious celebrity and money, with a sprinkling of gobbledy gook and ratbaggery means everything. Have a nice day, going forward, guys!

john frawley | 16 June 2021  

Thank you Andy for this thoughtful article. Greed and individualism have long been a driver of our economy. It also highlights the falsehood of a meritocracy which encourages those who have made it to the top position to think it was deserving as opposed socioeconomic stauts and luck. There is an opportunity through this pandemic to relook at the pay and working conditions of those in jobs deemed to be essential work but who recieve poor pay and conditions as Andy suggests. It is also an opportunity to look at our own privilege and work towards a more justice society.

Stephen Locke | 22 June 2021  

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