Essential workers – at the centre

By Pā (Msgr) Gerard Burns: How do we put essential workers at the centre of our societies and economic systems? The other day I was out for my morning walk…

By Pā (Msgr) Gerard Burns:

How do we put essential workers at the centre of our societies and economic systems?

The other day I was out for my morning walk earlier than usual. It was still dark and with the pandemic restrictions the streets were very quiet. Coming down the street towards me was a truck with two workers emptying the streetside rubbish bins. The workers were surprised to see anyone else out that early; we saluted each other and went on our ways. These essential workers do their job day in and day out, pandemic or no.

We have become more conscious of what is classified as an essential service in these days and more willing to recognize them. Perhaps this is because we are feeling more vulnerable in the face of a microscopic virus that has largely brought ‘business as usual’ to a stop. There are the essential services of the nurses, doctors, health professionals, of food suppliers and markets, of emergency services, and so on.

Many of the most essential workers (cleaners, sanitation workers, maintainers of our water, sewage, rubbish services, etc) work un-social hours and are on wages and conditions that make it very difficult to live and support a family and have good shelter. Meanwhile many of the highest paid in our society produce the least (in terms of material output).

This is one of the fruits of our capitalist economic system that has been strengthened around most of the world in the last 40 years by the ‘neoliberal wave’. That wave is often linked to the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in 1979 and 1980. It got a special boost in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall opening up many previously closed markets. Neoliberalism meant a rolling back of the role of the state and greater space given to private enterprise.

The state was portrayed as inefficient, invasive, unable to adapt quickly to changing technological and cultural systems and the failings of the Soviet Union provided supporting examples. State ‘inefficiency’ also often meant a rolling back of welfare provisions where they existed. However the supposed superiority of free markets was dealt a huge blow by the Global Financial Crisis (2008-09) which led to massive intervention by governments to prop up global capitalism.

And now a small virus has led governments (states) to shut down – at least for a while – the paths of much of the world’s economic interactions because they also facilitate the spread of a virus. There are a huge consequences for good and ill in this but it has demonstrated something about the importance of the state in terms of public health and capacity to act quickly in the face of an emergency.

There are many lessons in this but from a Catholic Social Teaching point of view one question is what is the opportunity here to organize our societies anew to protect public health in the widest sense – including the health of the earth? How do we put the truly essential workers and those discarded by the current system at the centre of our societies and economic systems? These are questions a common good approach asks.