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May 9, 2024
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Recognise the rights and dignity of all workers

By Fr Stephan Alexander

General Manager, CCSJ and AMMR


My recent focus on human dignity comes from the blessing of experiencing my blindness and how it impacts my relationship with others. Specifically, how I often fail to honour the human dignity of others as well as my own. This tends to occur when I adopt the stance and retort of the Pharisees who proclaimed, “… we are not blind” (Jn 9:40).

Our assertion of sight, I’m learning, is a stumbling block to our acceptance of the blessing of restored sight that Jesus desires to grant us. This is because when we declare “we see” we remain locked in our limited vision. Hence, we aren’t open to the Lord’s healing of our sins (Jn 9:41). His healing allows us to experience and understand the other’s perspective and leads us to the truth of their stories.

While visiting several communities recently, I was startled by the apparent inactivity of youth in the area. I quickly mounted my high horse and spouted off about how, ‘they should ….’

I’ll spare you the diatribe but suffice to say I was very judgmental in my approach towards these young men and women. Fortunately, several of them engaged me and blessed me with the gift of sight.

This gift overwhelmed the blindness that saw them through lenses of lacking ambition, being lazy, undereducated, unwilling to work hard or sacrifice. As my eyes slowly opened, I became aware that several of them had university degrees but were unemployed.

Others were underemployed, working jobs outside their field of study and well below their level of education. Some were progressive and industrious yet unemployable due to a lack of experience, experience they cannot get because no one is willing to take a chance on them, hire them and teach them.

Others, who were still pursuing education at various levels lamented the fact that they often felt demotivated due to the lack of opportunities available to them.

One student spoke of a particularly difficult reality of older relatives who were now unemployed or underemployed. These relatives are educated and previously worked on contract.

However, with the non-renewal of their contracts due to economic realities during and post Covid-19 lockdowns, and having passed the age of 45 years, their relatives are faced with the reality of unemployability within the government/public sector as well as many private sector industries due to an ‘unofficial policy’ that promotes ageism.

Hence, the reality of government and other employers now prioritising contract employment instead of permanent employment not only destabilises current members of the workforce but also impacts those still dreaming of jobs when their education is completed.

This unfortunately isn’t a reality limited to people in the communities that I visited. It is the reality of many young people locally, regionally, and internationally, including Shamila Singh who was featured in a Trinidad Express article on February 21, 2024, titled ‘Youth unemployment disproportionately higher than national average’. It is a reality that impacts their human dignity as well as their right to work.

In his apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit, Pope Francis notes that young people can “experience forms of exclusion and marginalization, of which the first and most serious is youth unemployment, which in some countries reaches exorbitant levels. Besides making them poor, the lack of work impacts negatively on young people’s capacity to dream and to hope, and it deprives them of the possibility of contributing to the development of society.”

The Pope also reminds us, “Work is an expression of human dignity, a path of development and of social inclusion. It is a constant stimulus to grow in responsibility and creativity, a protection against the tendency towards individualism and personal gratification. At the same time, it is an opportunity to give glory to God by developing one’s abilities.”

Hence, both government and private sector employers must make this social justice issue a priority. This is not only the view of Pope Francis.

Economist, Marlene Attzs, a regular contributor to The Catholic News, who was featured in the previously referenced Trinidad Express article indicated that there is a gap “caused by the mismatch between supply and demand”.

Attzs recommended that “the gap must be addressed by forming a workforce development plan or a manpower audit to identify the skills required in the market based on the country’s economic development strategy.”

Such recommendations must immediately be pursued. However, we must also recognise that any policies implemented should not be limited to youth since work does not only dignify the young.

Emphasis should also be placed on stamping out employment practices that promote ageism and diminish job security of ageing workers. This should especially be promoted during the commemoration of International Workers’ Day, May 1.

As Pope Leo XIII taught in his social encyclical Rerum Novarum, the just treatment of workers is a recognition of their inherent dignity.

Let us therefore recommit ourselves to uphold the rights and dignity of all workers, especially the youth, and strive to create a world where labour is valued, and every person is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.


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Photo by Hunter Haley on Unsplash