The Alberta government recently decided to lay off something on the order of 11,000 health care workers. Yes: lay off health care workers in the midst of a pandemic. The idea is that these workers – support staff in hospitals, I think, most of them – are unionized and therefore overpaid. The province can save some money by contracting out these services: hospital laundry, cleaning rooms, food services, and such.
When you contract out to a private company, instead of providing the service as part of government, you must also pay for the private company’s profit. If the shareholders are not taken care of, the company goes out of business. So to save money, we take what is currently spent on worker wages, and we subtract the savings, and subtract the profit margin, and what is left is what is available to pay private workers to do the same job as before.
Who loses is quite clear: the savings that the government realizes come ENTIRELY from the earnings of these already relatively low paid workers. Funny: we are learning in this pandemic that low-wage workers are often also essential workers. We are learning that workers for private health care companies are often not paid enough, and do not have sufficient benefits, to be able to (for instance) stay home when they are sick. The dynamics of private health care have ravaged seniors’ residences and care homes across Canada. Our government wants to save money by driving these essential workers into greater poverty, and it wants to bring all the difficult dynamics that have caused so many pandemic problems into our hospitals, in addition to our seniors’ care homes.
I was talking recently to a very well-meaning, ethical businesswoman. She was telling me that unions tend to contribute to inflationary salaries, and she used these hospital workers as an example. Because the hospital workers are backed by a union, they are paid more than others without unions – people who do housekeeping in hotels, for instance, who are paid minimum wage or thereabouts. It’s fine to pay more, she said, but if your cleaners are paid $22/hour, then the next tier “up” must be paid more, and the next tier more, and so on. It makes the costs unbearable. Okay – I think I get that.
Except that all of this is built on the notion of hierarchy. It is based on the notion that the work of those who clean hospital rooms is worth less than the work of those who process admissions, which in turn is worth less than those who take blood for lab tests, which in turn is worth less than those who provide nursing care, and so on. There may be good reasons for such a hierarchy in some respects – but we have exaggerated this hierarchical thinking such that full-time workers cleaning hospital rooms are considered overpaid if they earn a living wage, and CEOs are not overpaid even when they earn the equivalent of an ordinary workers annual salary in less than a week.
If grocery clerks, delivery people, and room cleaners are considered essential, why does a full time job in those sectors still leave the worker in poverty? Why do we pay those who take care of our money so vastly much more than those who take care of our children? In the end, I think it comes down to a much more disturbing question: why do we value some people, their lives and their work, so much more than others? Why is it acceptable to us, even important to us, to have a servant class in our society that works hard but struggles to thrive?
So often Jesus challenges our notions of value and hierarchy – rebuking disciples when they seek positions of privilege and power, numerous cases where he talks about the last being first and the first last, the notion of leadership as service, and one profoundly disturbing parable in which people hired for only an hour are paid equally to those who have laboured throughout the day.
I want to live in a society in which everyone who works a full time job is paid enough to thrive. I do think that will mean that those on the bottom of the scale need to move up significantly, and those at the top (and even in the middle) will need to move down. More egalitarian societies tend to be happier healthier places to live. And there needs to be something driving us, calling us forward, that is more worthy than the greed for more.
I believe that Jesus is calling us in this day to take the notion of human hierarchy to the dump. Instead, I think we are called to value each person, and their humanity, their work, their lives equitably. Can we find an economic system that values the common good more than each individual’s ability to climb the ladder? What if there is really no ladder to climb?