Dirt cheap: work and faith

I am a great believer in bringing the worlds of work and spirituality together—enabling people to make clearer connections between their religious faith and their daily life in the workplace. Inspired by the thought of people like Gordon Preece and Robert Banks, I’ve been talking and writing about this for a long time.

No doubt, the bridging of these two ‘spheres’ is overdue but often a hard sell. The task has found new steam in recent years. An inspiring number of resources have surfaced exploring the theology of work and the practice of faith through work. Less inspiring is that the majority of this material is focussed on the work of a minority of people. In short, it’s elitist.

Of course, this elitism is neither intentional nor sinister. The truth is, those who have the resources and inclination to address these issues do so as inhabitants of a particular world: the world of the tertiary educated, the professional or managerial classes. Any number of essays address the challenges in fields like law, business and finance, education and health care, just as there is an impressive range of resources geared toward marketplace leaders and the high fliers of the corporate world. But when it comes to the more mundane work of factory labourers, shop assistants, food service workers, cleaners and homemakers, there is comparative silence.

This silence is not confined to theology.  There is a broader cultural silence that surrounds it.  This is underlined by reading books like Elisabeth Wynhausen’s Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Job Market. A journalist with The Australian, Wynhausen recounts a year working minimum wage jobs around Australia, from a waitress in an exclusive social club, a line-worker for a egg packing plant, a night cleaner in an office complex, a breakfast cook in an inner-city hotel, a cashier in a suburban discount store, to a kitchen hand in a retirement home.  It’s a great book and real insight into the world of work for so many Australians.  What strikes Wynhausen most forcefully is the basic indignities that many so-called ‘unskilled’ workers live with:

“I may have spent the best part of a year in and out of the low-wage workforce doing things I’d never done before, from cleaning hotel toilets to laundering loads of institutional washing, but I had failed to adapt to the real indignity, being treated as a person of no consequence. I kept waiting to be consulted, about my own schedule, at least. I couldn’t get it through my head that I was just another set of hands.”

Of course, personal fulfillment is not high on the list of expectations for low-wage workers like these. As Wynhausen writes:

“Bothered by the idea that no one in the factory ever went home with the feeling they had done a good day’s work, I had asked Sandra, a little twig of a woman in a big flannel shirt, if people took pride in what they did. Sandra looked at me as if I were cracked. ‘You just do it,’ she said. ‘Like a robot,’ said the woman next to her.”

There is no doubt the challenges of low-wage work deserve more serious attention in the writing of faith-and-work enthusiasts like me. Perhaps, too, we do well to listen more and speak less when it comes to understanding the realities of work for many Australians.

[Elisabeth Wynhausen, Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Job Market, Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2005]

4 thoughts on “Dirt cheap: work and faith”

  1. Simon, I have enjoyed a glimpse of these last few books you’ve read. You have a way of extracting an intriguing truth from each of them. Thanks.
    I’ve often wondered at the luxury I have in a job that I enjoy, and whether I would be able to live graciously doing a job I had to do rather than chose to do. It is confronting to realise my pride and self-satisfaction are so real.
    Loved the quote about waiting, too. I’ve lived that realisation a few times.
    And happy birthday :)

  2. Thanks Kath! I feel the same about my work, and even though I find a deep sense of vocation in what I do, there are still days–too many–when I’d rather be doing something else. So what is it like to work at something in which there is no reward but financial survival? And thanks too for the birthday wishes. Life is good.

  3. Thanks for these comments, Simon. I’ve said similar things for some time, given my strong interest in the same area yet having a history of low paid and ‘base; work. Hard to get excited about a job as a ‘vocation’ when it entails 5am start cleaning out grease traps, cleaning toilets, polishing brass and mopping a shopping arcade!

    In fact, a theology of vocation enabled me to see other things I was doing or preparing for as closer to the essence of vocation. That job and others were largely means to other ends, even if I did, unevenly, attempt to see them as places to ‘work as unto the Lord’.

  4. Perhaps therein lies the key, Ian. For many people, vocation is so much more than their daily work — there’s family, the garden and the back shed, a church, sports club or community group, the neighbourhood … that was certainly the case for my dad who worked most of his life in a factory. His sense of meaning, self esteem and spirituality had very little connection to his paid work.

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