Work’s dignity and worker’s rights


On Wednesday 1 May the Church celebrates the feast of St Joseph the Worker. It was Pope Pius XII, in 1955, who gave the title the Worker to St Joseph. In fact, the latter is the patron saint of carpenters, builders and all workers. 1 May is also World Labour Day wherein the economic and social achievements of workers are celebrated.

Work has both its dignity and relevance. No progress can be registered without the essential effort of the worker who works. Work is, first and foremost, part of God’s plan for the entire humanity since, thanks to it, the human being collaborates with his Creator and Saviour in the continual act of creation and salvation of our world. In his general audience address of Wednesday 1 May 2013 Pope Francis said:

“Jesus comes into our history among us, born of Mary by the power of God, but with the presence of Saint Joseph, the legal father who cares for him and also teaches him his work. Jesus is born and lives in a family, in the Holy Family, learning the craft of carpenter from Saint Joseph in his workshop in Nazareth, sharing with him the commitment, effort, satisfaction, and also the difficulties of every day. This reminds us of the dignity and importance of work. The book of Genesis tells us that God created man and woman entrusting them with the task of filling the earth and subduing it, which does not mean exploiting it, but nurturing and protecting it, caring for it through their work (cf. Gen 1:28; 2 15). Work is part of God’s loving plan, we are called to cultivate and care for all the goods of creation and in this way participate in the work of creation! Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. Work, to use an image, ‘anoints’ us with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works, who always acts (cf. Jn 5:17); it gives you the ability to maintain ourselves, our family, to contribute to the growth of our nation”.

However, in front of the dignity and opportunities work offers there are countless scores of people around the globe who are unemployed. Pope Francis reminded us of this heartbreaking reality when, within the same general audience speech, he observed:

“And here I think of the difficulties which, in various countries, today afflict the world of work and business; I think of how many, and not just young people, are unemployed, many times due to a purely economic conception of society, which seeks selfish profit, beyond the parameters of social justice”.

Every effort needs to be done in order that the dignity of work and the workers’ rights be always safeguarded. In many biblical books we find constantly this idea. For instance, in Deuteronomy, the Lord blesses our work so that we can share the fruit of our toils with others (see Deut 14:28-29). Moreover, the same book emphasises that workers’ wages are to be just since their livelihood depends principally on them (see Deut 24:14-15). The book of Ben Sirach likens the deprivation of an employee’s wage to committing a murder (see Sir 34:26-27). In Isaiah worshipping God is practically useless if one oppresses one’s fellow workers (see Isa 58:3-7). And Jeremiah has harsh words on those who maltreat workers (see Jer 22:13).

The New Testament is a continuation of the upholding of work’s dignity together with the worker’s rights. In Matthew’s gospel all workers are to be paid justly for the work they do (see Matt 20:1-16). The worker is to practice his and her integrity on the working place (see Luke 3:10-14). Luke’s gospel reminds us that our worth does not reside in the abundance of possessions of what we possess (see Luke 12:13-21). Whereas the letter of James scolds those who become rich by abusing their workers as sinning directly against God. Finally, it is interesting that both the Old and the New Testament highlight the importance of rest from one’s work by worshipping God, the Worker of workers (see Gen 2:1-3 and Mark 2:27). The Old Testament accentuates the liturgical aspect of the day of rest whilst the New Testament reminds us that charitable work in the day of rest is one of the main modes by which one can really worship God.

When speaking about work man remains, what Pope Benedict rightly dubbed it, as the “primary capital”. In his encyclical concerning the integral human development in charity and truth, Caritas in Veritate, the German Pope said: “I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: ‘Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life’” (no. 25).

Pope Francis spells out Benedict’s vision of man’s centrality in the field of work by making the following examples in his apostolic exhortation on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world, Evangelii Gaudium:

“Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded” (no. 204).

Let us commence our working day by praying this beautiful prayer, composed by Pope Pius XII, to Saint Joseph the Worker, in order that he both comes to our aid during our working day as well as helps us have the right conception of work.

“Oh glorious St Joseph, model of all who are devoted to work, obtain for me the grace to work in the spirit of penance in expiation of my many sins; to work conscientiously by placing love of duty above my inclinations; to gratefully and joyously deem it an honour to employ and to develop by work the gifts I have received from God, to work methodically, peacefully and in moderation and patience, without ever shrinking from it through weariness or difficulty to work; above all, with purity of intention and unselfishness, having unceasingly before my eyes death and the account I have to render of time lost, talents unused, good not done, and vain complacency in success, so harmful to the work of God. All for Jesus, all for Mary, all to imitate you, O Patriarch St Joseph! This shall be my motto for life and eternity. Amen.