The old fashioned expression "the dignity of labour" is thought to suggest the concept that all forms of work and endeavour, including manual labour, are equally worthwhile and deserving of respect; with no one specific occupation being superior to another. One of the concept's most notable proponents was reported to be the great Indian independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who strongly believed in the human dignity that emanated from the simple act of work, whether that was in the form of physical labour, or intellectual rigour.
Of course, one could argue that the concept of the dignified labourer is an old fashioned ideal, one that has its place in our pre-industrial societies, where human and animal provided the muscle and the sweat to break the ground, plant the seed and harvest the crops, fell the trees, plane the wood and erect the buildings, shepherd the flock, fleece the sheep, spin the wool and produce the clothes. In other words, to physically produce the food, the houses, the clothes that they and their fellow citizens required, in order to survive as a society on a day-to-day basis. To sit down at the end of the working day, content in the knowledge that their physical and mental labours had been worthwhile and meaningful, to themselves, their family, to their community; and maybe even to God himself?
Clearly the invention and development of mechanised devices has helped undermine the earlier ideals of the dignified labourer, as farmhand and horse have given way to the tractors and harvesters, which were and are a far more productive way of growing society's much needed foodstuffs. But so the argument goes, as we have become increasingly detached from the means and methods of producing the basics of life, so too are we slowly but surely losing the ability to value the intrinsic worthiness of manual labour, especially in the West, where we can no longer experience the pride, the joy or the satisfaction of actually making the things that we use, the things that we consume in an increasingly rapacious way.
Perhaps inadvertently, the unforeseen side effects of the inexorable loss of these basic skills within our modern society has not only left us bereft of vital knowledge, but also even more reliant and dependent on growing numbers of foreign workers, those from countries where manual labour is still intrinsically valued, if only in a wholly financial way. There is a school of thought that earnestly believes that Britain's current employment woes have come about as a direct result of the prevailing British attitude that there is no dignity, no respectability, no value in carrying out any form of manual labour, let alone that which is generally low paid. Quite why British workers should believe that manual labour is demeaning, when Eastern European workers do not, is undoubtedly the result of the massive social and economic changes that have been imposed on the country over the past forty years by successive governments, from all political persuasions.
Some might propose the argument that the British Trade Unions undermined the principle of there being any sort of inherent dignity in the manual labour of their members, simply because they chose to put a price, often a high price, on the cost of that labour, by virtue of the increasingly expensive wage demands that they put before employers. That is not to suppose that workers shouldn't be paid fairly for their time and their efforts, but surely not when those demands will directly impact the employer and the consumer in a highly negative way, as that can only lead to the eventual loss of support and sympathy amongst the wider general public. One could well make the argument that the National Union of Mineworkers lost their battle with the Thatcher government, not because they faced a determined political adversary, but because they had lost the support of the electorate, the British public, who by the time of the Miners Strike didn't regard the mineworkers as honourable and dignified labourers, who risked their lives every time they went down into the pits to cut out the coal, but rather as an overpaid, out-of-touch, un-elected, politically motivated grouping that was determined by bring down a democratically elected government; and at the same time make everyone else's life a sheer hell. The fact that recent releases of government papers have ultimately proved Arthur Scargill to be right about the Conservative's plans to essentially close down Britain's coal industries is a moot point really, given that our country's coalmining industries have now been dead and buried for decades, largely as a result of the civil conflict between an intransigent government and an obstinate unionised labour movement; and where mutual dignity was in very short supply on both sides, if it existed at all.
For many other people of course, the end of Britain's traditional and long standing labour force, came during the Thatcher era, in company with the brutal and extremely short-sighted de-industrialisation of the country that she and her Conservative colleagues advocated as the way forward for Britain, changing it from the highly skilled, "sick man of Europe", to the largely unskilled, "slightly healthier man of Europe". Out went large scale coalmining, shipbuilding, car making, steel production; and in came privatisation, downsizing, deskilling and dole queues, most of which was funded by selling off the country's publicly owned utilities and licences for the North Sea oilfields.
This became the age of "me, me, me", rather than being the age of "us, us, us"; and as hundreds of thousands of highly skilled coalminers, shipbuilders, carmakers, steel workers were thrown onto the dole queues, they could perhaps content themselves with knowing that while they languished on the dole, there were others who were enjoying the Right To Buy their council homes, or possibly Telling Sid that they were going to buy shares in the newly privatised utility companies. Rather than train to be a fitter, a welder, a miner, a riveter, a sheet metal worker, jobs that didn't really exist any more in modern Britain, not in any great numbers anyway, people on the dole could now retrain to be warehouse operative, a forklift truck driver, a secretary, or a computer operator instead. Okay, so there's not so much pride, or satisfaction, or personal dignity in producing a piece of A4 correspondence, as there was in helping to build a car, a ship, or digging coal to fuel the country's energy needs, but it was a job nonetheless, right?
So thanks to Thatcher and her Conservative successors, Britain emerged into the late 1990's with a significantly reduced skilled labour force; and a prevailing popular culture of manual labour being bad, but intellectual labour being okay, just so long as you're well rewarded for it! Tapping into these new attitudes and perhaps recognising that any sort of re-industrialisation of the country would be both costly and troublesome, if not nigh impossible, the new Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, conceived the idea of developing Britain into a world leading "knowledge" economy. This is said to be an economy that is based almost entirely on intellectual copyrights, or intellectual capital, which are generally intangible assets that can't be physically handled or adequately quantified, but typically include things such as research, technical support and consulting, the sorts of things that Mr Blair himself is said to have made many millions of pounds from, since he left eventually public office. The only problem with developing such an economy of course, is that it generally requires a much smaller and highly educated workforce, with a centralised emphasis on "Education, Education, Education", rather than on the much more fundamental "Manual Skills, Manual Skills, Manual Skills".
As a result of both Thatcher's deskilling of the nation's workforce and Blair's re-education of them, we now seem to have been left with a generation of workers with personal aspirations way beyond their means of achieving them. Hard, manual work has become an unattractive proposition in the main for an increasingly well educated British workforce, who not only aspire to have a highly respectable job, with good pay and prospects, but want to achieve it in the easiest way possible. Not for them, the old fashioned idea of working their way up from the shop floor to the management offices, let alone the thought of taking on the sorts of back breaking work that countless immigrants from Europe are willing to accept, regardless of the hours, or the pay and conditions that such gruelling work might involve. For the hundreds of thousands of Poles, Lithuanians, Romanians or Bulgarians who have migrated to our country to pick our crops, prepare our foods, serve in our high street restaurants and our coffee houses, the need to aspire to better things can wait, for now, they just want to earn money as quickly as they can, in anyway they can.
What is perhaps more alarming though, is the fact that our country's young people so readily scoff at the prospect of picking agricultural crops, sweeping the streets, preparing our foods, or serving in our restaurants and coffee houses, claiming that it would be undignified to do so, yet cannot see that being well educated, but being deliberately unemployed or indigent is equally undignified and degrading. Who would be the prouder man, the immigrant who toils in the field for his six pounds an hour, or the indigenous layabout who picks up his dole money every fortnight? Whose the better man, the worker who will do any old job to feed his family, or the individual who would rather rely on the State to put food in his children's mouths?
That isn't to suggest that unemployed workers should just take any old job in order to make their way in the world, as to do so would invite inequality, exploitation and wage slave labour, things that none of us would willingly welcome. However, the fact that our country has found the need to import hundreds of thousands of manual workers from the European continent, ostensibly because we have a shortage of such workers, despite having over two million unemployed people here at home, must surely indicate that things have gone seriously wrong in Britain.
It surely cannot be common coincidence that the wholesale de-industrialisation and deskilling of our country over the past forty years, coupled with the centralised re-education of our national workforce into believing that personal entitlement and aspiration are skills enough to succeed; and yet between them have seemingly fatally undermined the idea of an individual's work ethic in our country. Why work, when you can be given for free? Why not aspire to have the unattainable? Why worry about your fellow citizens, just so long as you're alright? Why labour, when someone else is prepared to?
Successive administrations have been struggling to find long term solutions to our nation's unemployment issues for decades, often with highly mixed results. However, the idea that the large scale importation of generally unskilled, low paid foreign workers will somehow solve the problem, will undoubtedly prove to be as unsuccessful as the rest. The greatest asset any company has is its workforce, so said Sir Richard Branson; and yet for year after year, decade after decade, we witness British companies regularly treating their personnel as little better than disposable commodities, that they pick up and put down on a whim or a notion.
The concept of the "Dignity Of Labour" although old fashioned, still holds true today. Our traditional values of dignity, value, respect and loyalty still exist to a lesser or greater degree within our country, but seem to have become detached from one another, especially in the workplace. Every worker was to feel valued and respected, to be treated with the dignity that they feel they deserve, in much the same way that they expect to be paid for the labour that they provide. How much more rewarding it is for a worker to be thanked for their efforts by their employer, who through that simple act conveys his respect for and value of their labours. What better way to end a working day? How much more rewarding and satisfying would it be for a worker to return home, knowing that their efforts have not only made a difference, but that the difference has been officially recognised by someone? Now isn't that what the dignity of labour is supposed to be about, a sense of personal worth, fulfilment and pride?