Ontario’s Report On The Future of Work And Employment Benefits
In this feature, we apply the principles, values, and virtues of Catholic social teaching to the analysis of a contemporary issue or news of public relevance. For a summary of these core teachings of our faith, click here.
APPLYING CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING TO: ONTARIO’S REPORT ON THE FUTURE OF WORK AND EMPLOYMENT BENEFITS
The nature of work is changing. The COVID-19 pandemic has helped drive a transformation in the ways Canadians work—bringing to bear new questions about the dignity of work, most especially for essential workers like healthcare staff and grocery store workers, those working primarily from home, or the many whose lost working hours due to lockdowns, relying more than ever on precarious work. Remote work has increased, as has work in the gig economy—whether app-based delivery services, or otherwise. The Government of Ontario launched a Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee to analyze the many shifting realities of the labour market and propose changes to various government programs that support workers.
The Government of Ontario has announced it intends to implement several of the committee’s recommendations, including:
- Appointing an expert to design and test a portable benefits program, where contributors could be employers, workers, and the government;
- Introduce the “right to disconnect” from work email and work obligations after regular hours, to enhance work-life balance; and,
- Give basic employment rights to gig or platform workers in the app-based space, like termination pay, minimum wage, regular payment of wages, and more.
CST CONCEPT—THE DIGNITY OF WORK
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says that work has a “particular dignity” which makes it more than just an impersonal element of productivity. Work, it says, “is an expression of the person.” The final goal of work is the human person—work must be oriented to the subject who performs it. That’s why the dignity of work is tied so crucially to the dignity of the human person—work is at the heart of who we are, as co-creators with God, in the model of Christ, who also worked.
That’s why it is crucial that work be dignifying. Work, says the Compendium, is “superior to every other factor connected with productivity”, especially in regard to capital—referring, of course, to the money and other material goods which are products or elements of the economy. In Part 279, the Compendium states that:
The relationship between labour and capital often shows traits of antagonism that take on new forms with the changing of social and economic contexts. In the past, the origin of the conflict between capital and labour was found above all “in the fact that the workers put their powers at the disposal of the entrepreneurs, and these, following the principle of maximum profit, tried to establish the lowest possible wages for the work done by the employees”. In our present day, this conflict shows aspects that are new and perhaps more disquieting: scientific and technological progress and the globalization of markets, of themselves a source of development and progress, expose workers to the risk of being exploited by the mechanisms of the economy and by the unrestrained quest for productivity.
This is important context in considering efforts—such as Ontario’s—to address the new realities of working that we engage in today. It used to be common for workers to remain with the same firm their entire lives, to be part of unionized workplaces, to have access to steadier and more consistent work. Today we see a proliferation of work that does not rely on traditional employment hours, or regular wages. Instead, time is banked, tips are depended on, hours are determined by the employee rather than the employer. Yet benefits programs in Ontario are often tied to such traditional employment. For less traditional employees—like those in app-based companies—benefits are harder to come by.
We must consider—for the sake of solidarity and the dignity of work, how can we reform these programs, so they capture the full measure of employment categories today?
CST RIGHT—REST FROM WORK
The Compendium states that “rest from work is a right.” This right goes back to Scripture, as even God rested after seven days of good work creating the world in Genesis. Human beings must have sufficient rest and free time for family, cultural, social and religious life. All of these are critical to a full, human life, lived in community and in service to others.
One of the great challenges of the modern economy is how totalizing work can be. For many professionals especially, constant access to work email and the blurring of regular working hours can lead to far more work done than is renumerated for. The pandemic has accelerated these trends—as more and more work from home, more and more the lines between work and home have disappeared.
The so-called “right to disconnect” and laws supporting it have appeared in recent years, ensuring that employers cannot contact or engage their employees outside of working hours. Can this be considered an expression or a fruit of Catholic social teaching’s “right to rest from work”? Others might have different views, but for myself, I believe so, and I would like to see a deepening conversation about this Catholic principle of a right to rest.
One famous Catholic writer, Josef Pieper, wrote a book called Leisure as the Basis of Culture. He writes that:
“The ability to be ‘at leisure’ is one of the basic powers of the human soul… the power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work…”
Here again we come back to the Compendium. Rest is needed to make possible so much of life—participation in the life of the Church, participation in culture, social life, relationships, friendships, family life, the list goes on. How do we protect it?