Work and Pay

I think the world has become confused about work.

Instead of thinking that work is something to be endured to bring in the money we need to live, or a means of making us rich we should think of our work as our contribution to fulfilling the needs of society. We need to start thinking of it as ‘what can I give’ instead of ‘what do I get’.

And in a similar manner, society needs to think more clearly about the needs of the individual. All of us need to eat, sleep and live somewhere that we can call home. And the reciprocal side of the exchange is that when someone contributes to society, then society has a duty of love to meet the needs of that person.

Jesus told a parable of a man who hired workers for his vineyard. Some he hired in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some just before closing time. But he paid them all the same. He paid them what they needed to live. But of course, those who worked all day felt that this was not just and grumbled. Yet the vineyard owner pointed out that they were happy to work for their agreed wages, and they had received them. All the workers were willing to work. They were willing to make their contribution to society, even if there was no immediate work required. And they all had the same needs. The vineyard owner met their needs. Why can’t we follow this example?

Similarly, how do we decide how much someone should be paid? Is it according to the contribution that the job makes to society? How valuable is it to society when a person sits at a desk and manages our money? How valuable is it to society when a person removes the rubbish that we create during the week? How valuable is it to society when a person serves us a meal in a café or restaurant? I have to say that the most valued workman I’ve encountered is the one who came to clear our blocked drains when the raw sewerage was overflowing! Yet he is paid less than I am, when I spend much of my time sitting at a computer terminal.

It is not my aim to claim that job A is X times as valuable as job B, but to add into our thinking and actions that we need to be willing to pay each person sufficient to meet their needs.

Unfortunately the recent trend is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. I don’t have a problem with unequal pay, and with pay that reflects the value to society of the work. But I do take issue with a system that ignores the ‘need’ part of the equation.

Can you and I do anything? Yes we can. Even if it is only being willing to pay a fair price instead of the lowest price for goods and services.

But also, the reward for our work is more than just money. We all value the respect of our fellow human beings. One thing that we can all do is to treat everyone, in whatever job, with respect and with appreciation.

And similarly, when we are working, we can consider our work as more than just a job but as a contribution to society. The bricklayer can choose to be building a home instead of laying some bricks.

And we also need to respect those who are seeking work but unable to find it. Not only do they receive no wages, our benefit system disrespects them and prevents them making their contribution to the good of us all. Can’t we treat them like those in Jesus’ parable who were looking for work , and who at the end of the day were then paid what they needed to live.

Let’s think on these things as we go about or daily life of working, waiting, shopping and ‘consuming’.  Let’s change our attitudes.

About Minimalist Christian

Phil Hemsley is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK. He works for a multinational company in the power industry, has presented technical papers at international conferences and holds many patents. He has published two books, the most recent is "The Big Picture, an Honest Examination of God Science and Purpose". He has lived on both sides of the faith fence. He is married, with two daughters.
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9 Responses to Work and Pay

  1. eddigoodwin says:

    Thanks Phil. I was listening to an interview with a carer this morning. Once their travel time is factored in they are paid well below the minimum wage. They are expected to complete their visits in 15 to 20 minutes and in this time they may have to bath, feed and take an elderly or disabled person to the toilet. Impossible! Many give extra unpaid time to their charges, trying to meet their needs for companionship, rather than just rushing in an out. Carers know that this may be the only human contact their customers have during their whole day. This disgraceful situation reflects the value we place on caring, on the needy and on the carers, many of whom come from cultures where respect for the elderly is part of their culture. Jesus gave time to the poor and needy and treated them with incredible respect. Our values are so skewed.


  2. unkleE says:

    One of the basic problems is that we live in a capitalist society where, by definition, people are valued by what profit they can make. If a Board thinks a particular GM can make much more for the company than any other, they will pay him (or rarely her) accordingly. The caring professions don’t make money so they aren’t valued as much. Doctors get a reasonable amount compared to most people, but not compared to company directors, etc, because they “only” save lives, not make money for other people.

    It would all be different in a socialist society, but pure socialism seems to be worse than pure capitalism. The only way forward, I reckon, is 50/50 capitalism/socialism plus christian grace.


    • Different countries manage more or less successfully. USA seems the worst for unequality, and suffers as a result:

      “The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.”


      • unkleE says:

        That’s an interesting report – I have heard of it I think but not seen it before. But I wonder who is badly affected by inequality? The average person may do worse, but I wonder if the rich do worse too? The reduction in crime with greater equality would be a bonus for everyone though. I would like to see the change you are advocating, but I doubt the privileged will give up some of their privilege so easily, though I see stories that some are doing so.


  3. newtonfinn says:

    E.F. Schumacher nailed this issue, in my opinion, in his essay called “Buddhist Economics.” When money is made into god and economics trumps all other concerns, human labor becomes a cost of doing business, a cost which business is constantly trying to reduce and eventually hopes to eliminate. Correspondingly, the worker in a system with this devalued view of labor, wants to get as much money as possible for as little sacrifice of time and energy as possible. Marx had this right all along, although it’s only now that we are really seeing the fruition of his theory (Marx’s mistaken timing being a bit reminiscent of the early church’s expectation of the immanent return of Jesus).

    So Schumacher sees the modern problem of work as a metaphysical issue. Buddhism views work as a necessity for a healthy human life. It’s goals are to free the individual from his own ego-centeredness by learning to work with others, to develop the talents and abilities that are latent within him/her and in need of an outlet for expression, and lastly, to produce the goods and services that are necessary for a sanely civilized way of life. Thus, the last thing that a Buddhist economist would want to do would be to fire people from their jobs and reduce the cost of labor, since this would defeat the noble purposes for which work exists.

    There’s a lot more to the essay and Schumacher’s thought in general about this subject, distinguishing good work from bad, tool from machine, etc., which draws upon both Gandhi and the distributive economic theory of Roman Catholic tradition. I guess his bottom line is that your entire view of work is, whether you recognize it or not, based upon a definite metaphysical position. The position adopted by Western civilization leads inevitably to “human resources,” one of the most demeaning terms that ever became socially acceptable. We in the modern West have a spiritual problem which leads to an economic problem which leads to the world we live in.


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