To Work is a Central Human Right?
This month South Africans celebrate the most precious rights we possess and the rights for which the struggle for our freedom was all about: human rights.
A human right is a right which is believed to belong to every person.
Human rights are so important in South Africa that they are enshrined in our Constitution under our Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights is the cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom. The state must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights.
The right to dignity is inherent in all human beings, simply because we are humans, regardless of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and so on. As Christians we believe that we have this inherent dignity as human beings because we are created in the image of God.
When we reflect on the state of our country, it is visible and tangible that the dignity of the human being, especially the youth, is being violated by the high degree of unemployment in our country.
Those of us who have experienced unemployment will know first-hand how not having work leads not only to having no money to buy daily necessities but also to a sense of worthlessness. That affects our self-esteem. Why is this so?
Work is much more than just gainful employment. The Christian concept of work defines work as the “distinguishing mark of human beings”.
“Work is one of the characteristics that distinguishes human beings from the other creatures, whose daily activities for the preservation of life cannot be called ‘work’; only human beings are capable of work; only human beings perform work with which they occupy their earthly existence,” Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical Laborem exercens.
The saintly pope continued: “Thus work represents a special characteristic of man and of mankind, the identifying mark of the individual who operates within a community of individuals.”
When we work, we unfold our God-given mental and physical powers. We occupy our skills and our talents, and through the use of these skills and talents, each and every person develops him or herself as a human person. So more than earning a living, work enables us to develop our skills and become better at what we do.
When we work, we render a service to the community for the common good through whatever it is that our labour produces. So more than earning a living, work enables us to render a service.
More and more our work has to take into account the impact on the environment as we look for better ways of how to produce without spoiling the earth. So more than earning a living, when we work we also interact responsibly with God’s creation.
Taking these elements of work into account, work becomes not only a human right but also a necessity. Each person needs to work to be able to express themselves as human beings and to be able to secure an appropriate living standard for themselves and their family.
As Christians it is important for us to promote and fashion a world of work that embraces human dignity.
It has been said that South Africa’s Constitution, including our Bill of Rights, is one of the best in the world — but we are a far way off from realising the rights contained therein.
There are many organisations within the Church, such as the Kolping Society (which I serve), Scalabrini, Salesians, Catholic Welfare & Development, Thabiso Skills Institute, Denis Hurley Centre — the list is so extensive, I cannot possibly name them all — whose mission it is to bring gainful employment opportunities to young people, and you would do well by supporting these organisations and help many young men and women find dignified employment opportunities and thereby experience their human right to dignity.