The Dignity of Human Work

 By Wilberforce Bukuta

This subject comes at an opportune time, as the Mother Church celebrates the feast of St Joseph the Worker and at the same time the nation celebrates the Worker’s Day. This feast was established by Pope Pius XII in 1955 in order to Christianise the concept of labour and give to all workmen a model and a protector. It is in this spirit that we are able to speak about the dignity of human work.

Work is as old as man’s life on earth. Through work man earns his or her daily bread as the Psalmist says, “You will eat what your hands have worked for (Ps 127/128: 2). The Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines work as “every material and spiritual activity tending to a useful result”. It can also be said that work is a fatiguing activity intended to modify things through the use of the body and instruments with which man searches to satisfy his own needs. Human work is the result of many internal conditions (attitudinal, intellectual, temperamental, characteriological) and external factors (physical, technical, economic, social). In the very first pages of the book of Genesis we find the reason to believe that work is fundamental to man’s existence. When man created in the image and likeness of God… male and female (Gen 1: 27). God instructed them, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1: 28). There is no doubt these words mean man must work; even if the word ‘work’ is not mentioned. St John Paul II reflecting on this aspect teaches that, “Man is the image of God partly because he is told to tame the earth and so reflect the very action of the Creator”. Man’s domination of the earth is achieved through work. Hence, work can be understood as the thing man does. Apart from other aspects, it is work that distinguishes man from others creatures; only man is capable of work. Therefore, work bears the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. It is fundamental to man’s existence. No wonder why, when man is deprived of work, it leads to demonstrations or even illegal and evil acts. And someone has the blame.

Man’s life is built from work and dignified by it, but work also entails toil and suffering, and social injustice in the national and international level. It is true that he or she will eat the bread by ‘sweat, effort and toil’ (cf Gen 3: 19). This means that work will sometimes imply heavy toil but it does not change the fact that through work man should intend to bring harmony on earth. Toil is known everywhere. It is familiar to those who labour physically: those who work the land or mines, steelworkers and constructors. It is also familiar to those at an intellectual work-bench; to scientists and those with responsibility for decisions that could affect all of society. It is common to doctors and nurses and to women who, often unrecognized by society, bear the daily burden of housework and of bringing up their children.

In spite of this toil, work is a good thing for man. Not only because it is enjoyable but is it good because it expresses and increases man’s dignity. The ancient world divided people into classes according to the work they did. Physical labour was considered unworthy, so it was given to slaves. However, recalling what the Old Testament teaches and adding the message of the gospel, Christianity changed ideas about this. Following especially to the one whose state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are’ (Phil 2: 6-7), and spent most of his life working at the carpenter’s bench(Joseph’s bench). This best understanding of work shows that the value of human work does not depend on the kind of work done but on the fact that the one who works is a person. This is where we find our understanding about the dignity of work.

This destroys the old division of people into classes on the measure of work they do. It is does not mean that work cannot be rated and qualified; but only that the mean measure of the value of work is man. This stance leads us to an important conclusion: work is for man, not man for work. Whatever purpose work may have, it has no meaning by itself: It is always man who is the purpose of work.

Through work man does not only transform nature: he is also fulfilled; he becomes more a human being. In other words man becomes ‘fully human and fully alive’. If the dignity of work is maintained, it is attached to the following values:

Personal Value – Inasmuch as it proceeds from the human person or in that it finds in man its final end. Work is a good of man, of his or her humanity, because through work man not only transforms nature by adapting it to his own needs, but he also realizes himself or herself as a man and takes his man-project to fulfillment.  

Social Value – The work of a person does not only give to the advantage or damage of him or her, but also to the advantage or damage of other members of the group. The social value of the work, is vigorously underlined by St John Paul II as he teaches that, “work has as its characteristic that, first of all, it unites people, and in this consists its social force: the force to construct a community.

Ethical Value – As an activity of man, work, just like every other activity, can be morally good or evil according to the good or evil end that he or she who performs the action works for.

Soteriological Value – Man, created in the image of God, through his work participates in the work of the Creator. It is necessary to have the perspective of the child of God reconciled with the Father through the work of Christ. Seen in this radiance, work contributes as the participation in the Cross of Jesus Christ for our salvation.

Eschatological Value – Work contributes as the participation in the Resurrection of Christ to the Advent of the Reign of God. On this note St John Paul II teaches that: “In human work the Christian recovers a small part of the cross of Christ and accepts it in the same spirit of Redemption in which Christ accepted his cross for us. In work, by virtue of the light which from the Resurrection of Christ penetrates us, we always find a gleam of new life, of the new good, almost like an announcement of the ‘new heavens and the new earth’, which precisely through the fatigue of work come to be participated in by man and by the world”.

The dignity of work is inseparable to human rights. This entails that, work is a duty but it also gives the worker rights. The worker’s rights must be seen as a part and parcel of the wider human rights. These include a healthy relationship between employee and employer, fair renumeration, required resting hours, right to property, strike, safe working conditions, just to mention a few.

However, it is noticeable that some people abuse work as they use it against man, as when it is used in the form of punishment or when it gets the title ‘forced labour’. Work should not by any means used as a way of oppressing and exploiting man. Work isone of the foundations of family life, the family needs earnings normally produced by work.

As we celebrate the very fact of our existence, we pray to the Father our all mercies to bless the fruits our hands. And that He may bless our nation with employment opportunities for all. Amen


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