Work and Covid-19

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Covid-19 is not only claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people but it is also the number one responsible for huge figures of unemployment. Initially, the International Labour Organization (ILO), said that 25 million jobs were threatened by the new coronavirus. Then, as the pandemic persisted, according to the latest dire assessment of the current worldwide situation, the conclusion was undoubtedly shocking: 2.7 billion workers, in other words, four in five of the world’s workforce, have been greatly hit either by the full or partial lockdowns.

In front of the crisis of global unemployment which, according to the ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, when speaking in Geneva via videoconference on April 7 2020, stated that global unemployment had already soared up to around 190 million, it has been starkly shown that our world is suffering from what he termed as “absolutely extraordinary fall.” Obviously, this took place due to the pandemic effects as well as the measures that ensued in the hope of controlling it. For the ILO chief, workers in four sectors that were badly hit by the most “drastic” effects of the disease and falling production are: food and accommodation (144 million workers), retail and wholesale (482 million); business services and administration (157 million); and manufacturing (463 million).

In his address to the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation, at the Clementine Hall, on May 25 2013, Pope Francis did not mince his words regarding the catastrophe which emanates from unemployment. He said: “Unemployment — the lack or loss of work — is a phenomenon that is spreading like an oil slick in vast areas of the west and is alarmingly widening the boundaries of poverty. Moreover there is no worse material poverty, I am keen to stress, than the poverty which prevents people from earning their bread and deprives them of the dignity of work.” And this is exactly what Covid-19 has been doing worldwide and especially in the west: preventing us from earning our daily bread and depriving us from the dignity which only the work of our hands can give us.

Friday, 1 May, marks the liturgical celebration of St Joseph the Worker. The Church has the highest regard on the dignity of work. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a fruitful vision of what work really stands for. To begin with, work comes from God the Worker, who lovingly and trustfully, entrusts the capacity to work in the hands of the human person. In fact, He endowed him and her with the ability to steward creation. In number 2404 of the Catechism we find: “In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race.” As a result, “the appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.”

Inspired by the Bible, the Church sees work as the prolonging in co-responsibility of the human being with God in the work of creation, which is still going on. In number 2427 the Catechism tells us: “Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: ‘If any one will not work, let him not eat.’ Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him.” In this perspective, one can easily understand and deduce that unemployment is clearly an insult both to God, the Worker and Giver of Work, and the worker, the agent of work and to whom work is to be subdued and not the other way round.

Work is there to boost the God-given capacity in the human person to work so as to develop his and her talents, offer livelihood for his and her household as well as to promote the integral well-being of his and her society and the world at large. All this beneficial activity is to be carried out lawfully.

“In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work. Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community. Everyone has the right of economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all and to harvest the just fruits of his labor. He should seek to observe regulations issued by legitimate authority for the sake of the common good” (2428-2429).

Finally, let us not forsake the fact that just wage is the legitimate fruit of our work. Thus, to either refuse or withhold it would be tantamount to grave injustice. This, in practice, means that when determining fair pay both needs and contributions of each person should be taken into consideration, as the Catechism says in 2434: “Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural, and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good.” The principle of justice and not the sheer agreement between the parties is the ultimate regulator to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.

In his famous encyclical on human work, Laborem Exercens, of September 14 1981, St John Paul II gives us an enlightening understanding of the spirituality of work. “The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator, and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation” (LE, 25).

As we are getting rid, by God’s grace at work in our scientists, of covid-19, let us never forget that we, irrespective of the work we do and within the sphere of what is human, share in the activity of our Creator! That is why we need to appreciate each other as persons and workers! That is why we have to do all of what it takes to eliminate unemployment and direct our work not just as a means to soar in profit but also to further our humanity by showing solidarity, particularly to the poor and vulnerable in our world and society.

Happy Feast to all of us, workers!

Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

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