Restoring the Dignity of Work
By Timothy Liu
As we emerge from the pandemic to endemic (DOSCORN orange to yellow), we all heave a sigh of relief. Yet, much have changed during these two years of dealing with the pandemic.
For one, Covid-19 has put a spotlight on the low value that society places on work performed by “essential workers”. Member of parliament (MP) Zainal Sapari and Nominated MP Walter Theseira in a news article titled “No shame in manual jobs for Singaporeans”, separately urged the government to enhance the workplace conditions and wages for workers such as cleaners and security officers. Their manual or service jobs are regarded as essential during the pandemic. These essential workers’ gross salary falls below the fifth percentile of residents in Singapore (Straits Times, 4 June 2020).
Many parents in the past chided their children that they will end up becoming road sweepers or garbage collectors if they do not study hard. There is a strong narrative within society that the value of a person or their success is based primarily on the income which they are able to extract from the free market economy.
Second, Covid-19 is also known as the “inequality virus”. A Channel News Asia’s (CNA) report on 23 August 2021 pointed to the widening income gap between the rich and poor during this period. Several international studies have shown that the overarching effects of Covid-19 could deepen inequalities between rich and poor nations, urban and rural populations, and communities of different socioeconomic levels, ages, genders and colours.
Finally, in the face of death and diseases, many are questioning the purpose of life and in particular, the purpose of work. A phenomenon known as “The Great Resignation” first coined by management professor Anthony Koltz from the University College London, to describe millions in the United States resigning en masse starting 2021. An article from Human Resource Online (https://www.humanresourcesonline.net/the-great- resignation-how-the-global-phenomenon-is-hitting-singapore-s-smes-hard), which was posted on 20 April 2022, also noted just over three in five (62 per cent) of Singapore’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) surveyed, say more
staff are resigning now compared to a year ago. This compares to just 40 per cent of respondents in the rest of Asia Pacific and Japan, who admitted facing more resignations today than a year ago. Covid-19 has probably caused many workers to re-evaluate the purpose and meaning of their daily work.
Underlying is the essential question: how do we value work as a society?
Diminished view of work and workers
In his most recent book The Tyranny of Merit, Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel put forth the idea that although it is right and good that we employ the best person for a job (based on merit), meritocracy when pushed to an extreme, can be tyrannical in nature. It gives oversized rewards to those who are successful when left to pure market forces. It thus, creates hubris amongst the successful, who believe that they deserve their large pay cheques due to their own hard work. For those who cannot make it, the opposite effect is then, shame and self-blame that they are not good enough, or did not study or work hard enough. As our society becomes more affluent, the gap between rich and poor widens as many of our next generation are born in privileged and under-privileged families. Not everyone has the same starting point and access to the same resources. Covid-19 has probably exacerbated this gap as observed by the CNA report.
“The tyranny of merit arises from more than the rhetoric ofrising (if only you work hard, you will make it in life. Everyone has an equal chance to the good life). It consists in a cluster of attitudes and circumstances that, taken together, have made meritocracy toxic. First, under conditions of rampant inequality and stalled mobility, reiterating the message that we are responsible for our fate and deserved what we get, erodes solidarity and demoralises those left behind by globalisation. Second, insisting that a college degree is the primary route to a respectable job and decent life creates a credentialist prejudice that undermines the dignity of work and demeans those who have not been to college; and third, insisting that social and political problems are best solved by highly educated, value- neutral experts is a technocratic conceit that corrupts democracy and disempowers ordinary citizens.” (Michael J. Sandel)
Dignity of work and workers
In the ancient cultures in the Old Testament, humans were created to serve the gods as slaves. In Roman society during Jesus’ time, manual labour was shunned by the Romans, who enslaved other nations to do all the manual work.
The Bible however, stands out and gives dignity to work and workers, by first and foremost introducing God as a worker (Genesis 1). God then made man in His image, imago dei, and also as workers after Himself. Giving the commission to have dominion over His creation and material world (Genesis 1:26), God invites humankind to participate in His glorious work of tending the garden, “to work it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15 ESV). Although work was marred by sin and made more difficult in Genesis 3, the commission that humankind was honoured for our role as workers in creation, was never diminished.
The Bible however, stands out and gives dignity to work and workers, by first and foremost introducing God as a worker.TIMOTHY LIU
This biblical worldview stands in stark contrast to the contemporary worldview prioritising intellectual work over manual work (and getting rewards accordingly), as if some work is less dignified than others.
Redeeming dignity of manual work
The Biblical narrative and the gospel of Jesus Christ seems to me, the only answer to having a positive emphasis of work and the worker, in comparison to all other narratives in the world today. As the people of God, a royal priesthood and holy nation, whatever work that God has called us to do on this earthly journey, we need to discharge our duty as if we are working for God.
We need to accord honour to all who are performing jobs and work that many of us naturally shun, as fellow image bearers of God. We need to repent from and correct our misguided views of unbiblical hierarchies of various jobs and professions, in whatever ways we prioritise them in our hearts. All work and workers that contribute to the common good and human flourishing are worthy of dignity and respect. In response, we need to be a voice and advocate for fair wages, that give them and their families a decent level of living and conducive work environment.
Re-evaluate value of work
Professor Sandel also proposes to re-evaluate work according to their real contribution to society or the common good.
He advocates for contributive justice in conjunction with distributive justice. (Contributive justice emphasises that justice is achieved not when
benefits are received but rather when there is both the duty and opportunity for everyone to contribute labour and decision- making. Distributive justice is defined as perceived fairness of how rewards and costs are shared by being distributed across members). Though this is not an easy endeavour, nonetheless as the body of Christ, we need to apply biblical principles in contemporary culture.
If essential workers are so essential, why then as a society, do we underpay them or view them in such lowly social economic status? How can we change and improve on the unbiblical narrative of merit highlighted by Professor Sandel in his book? After all, the cross is about un-merited grace! Do we see our success in humble gratitude because God has given us this gift? Do we use our gifting and talents to serve our own pleasure and lifestyles or being directed by the Holy Spirit to serve those around us?
To whom much was given, of him much will be required
As graduates with the privilege of tertiary education and having been gifted much by the grace of God, we need to see our roles at the secular workplaces as agents of change and transformation. “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48b) should be more than a conceptual assent. It is about how we honour all, who labour to make a living and bring about human flourishing. It is about how we advocate for those who are under-privileged, exploited and discriminated.
“Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more”LUKE 12:48B
Over the years, initiatives such as providing to feedback to parliament, catalysing ministries such HealthServe and legal clinics, and discussing contemporary issues, must continue in some ways in addition to what and how we go about in our daily work. More importantly, it is about how graduates today continue to bring life through the gospel of Jesus into all spheres of society and relationships with people we encounter each day. May we continue to be faithful in our core vision, serving students, church and society.
(Timothy Liu is the CEO of Dover Road Hospice and president of GCF from 2007/2008 to 2013/2014)