Doing Justice on Dignity in Work


Ben Ryan, Executive Director: Engagement and Strategic Development for Medaille Trust, reflects on the significance of dignity in work as we mark International Labour Day:

What is Dignity of Work?

Dignity in work is one of the best-known features of Catholic Social Teaching (those aspects of Church teaching that concern social and economic structures in society), but what does it mean to “do justice” and deliver it in practice?

Pope Francis summarises the idea of dignity in work in Laudato Si:

Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.

The question for doing justice on this principle is how can this be delivered? What can be done by government and civil society to deliver an economy in which people are willing and able to contribute to their own welfare through good, meaningful work which respects and enhances their dignity?

There are three areas which stand out:

1.         The right to work

2.         The support to work

3.         Protection in work.

Each of these are critical to ensuring a healthy, dignified economy but cannot be achieved by individuals, but only through collective efforts.

The Right to Work

The obligation to earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace.

Campaigns and civil rights movements have secured over many decades guarantees on the right to work for women and minorities, as well as ensuring the right to work with a minimum wage without discrimination. However, there are still a significant number of people living in the UK who lack the right to work and contribute. This includes asylum seekers, who are barred from working in the UK. Not only does this mean that they are unable to contribute financially to their own welfare (at a cost to the welfare state) but it deprives of them the dignity and opportunity to be found in contributing to their community. Many become at risk of exploitation in the black and grey economies as unscrupulous employers and traffickers offer them work to support themselves which comes without safe and legal protection.

The right to work is a matter of law and policy. To change the right to work requires campaigning to change the mind of government. You can learn more about the ‘Lift the Ban’ campaign here.

The Support to Work

All people have the right to work, to a chance to develop their qualities and their personalities in the exercise of their professions, to equitable remuneration which will enable them and their families to lead a worthy life on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level and to assistance in case of need arising from sickness or age.

The right to work is not the same thing as having the ability and opportunity to do so. Lots of things can prevent people who want to work from doing so. They may lack the confidence to do so, or the training, education, and qualifications, or have caring responsibilities that prevent them from doing so. They may have health or disability challenges that create barriers to employment.

Many of these can be resolved or at least helped, by social means. There are many charities working with people to build their confidence, train them and facilitate opportunities. It takes time and attention to build people up, neither of which are resources the current statutory or benefits system are currently known for. Doing justice in this context is about the work of civil society to help take action to develop people who want to work.

Protection in Work

In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.

Not all work is dignified or enjoyable. Many are abused or exploited in the workplace. There are an estimated 122,000 people currently in modern slavery in the UK, many of them in forced labour exploitation. In many industries including agriculture, car washes, hospitality and catering, domestic service, beauty, construction, and manufacturing modern slavery is widespread.

Much of this is a matter for police, but it also relies on everyone reporting concerns (if someone is in immediate danger call 999, otherwise contact the modern slavery helpline). Modern slavery is rarely truly invisible, and reporting can protect vulnerable people. More broadly there is a challenge on all of us to use our money as consumers and companies wisely. If you want to know what a major company or retailer is doing to counter modern slavery you can check their modern slavery statement.  

You can learn more about the work of Medaille Trust to counteract modern slavery here.


Dignity in work is a critical element of CST, but it isn’t something which necessarily occurs naturally or organically. Only by doing justice collectively can dignity in work be delivered and a better economy established. CSAN charities are at the forefront of working on these issues, please see what you can do to work with us!

Ben Ryan

Executive Director: Engagement and Strategic Development