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]