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Recognising the human value of work

  • 10 June 2021
  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.

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