As most of us know the Federal Government is about to embark upon some changes to our industrial laws. One key proposal, which is symbolic of all of the proposed changes, is the promotion of individual contracts. Employees will be encouraged to pursue them with their employers.
What does the term “individual contracts” mean? What reality lies underneath the phrase? It is a question well worth asking, since individual contracts may have quite an effect on our lives. My comments will be cultural, rather than political.
It seems to me the promotion of individual contracts is simply a reflection of the predominant culture now prevailing in our country and promoted by the media. It needs challenging and the government’s proposals provide a good avenue for a re-assessment of our reigning culture.
What we need, I believe, is not “individual contracts,” but “personal covenants”. We are not individuals. Sure, the constant message of our culture is that we are isolated beings seeking self-fulfilment. But if we were individuals, we would - each of us - have been placed on our own little island. We were not. We were created from nothing and placed in the context of a family, culture, society, and so on. We need each other to survive and thrive.
Rather, we are persons. We live and grow in community and at various times we desperately need advocates who can plead our cause. Such is the case of workers, who at various times, need the help of significant others to foster their just cause - their just wage.
I was very struck just the other day by the comments of a professional woman with two degrees. “How on earth,” she said to me, “will I know how to negotiate an individual contract?” It is an acute observation and an honest admission.
Imagine the scenario. A worker enters the room to negotiate a contract. His employers place on the desk a contract, which has been prepared by the legal department of the employer. Immediately we sense the problem.
The employee has absolutely no clues about the subtlety of the contract he is signing. The employer does - his legal section or his employer group or association has had ample time to prepare it. If an employee stands before his employer as an individual, not as person, he will become isolated and open to manipulation. He needs the help of significant others.
We need covenants, not contracts. Is it really the case that work is just a mere contract? Do we just turn up for work on Monday, do the job, collect the pay, and go home on Friday? Is it true that a person can work in a firm, factory, mine, school, council, government, corporation, and so on, and simply go home each week, year after year, and be unaffected by the experience? Can work be adequately described by the word “contract” - a sterile contract at that?
If work is just a contract, then aren’t we sanctioning slavery? We are simply selling ourselves for whatever the going rate may happen to be. We have, consciously or unconsciously, determined that the way to value work is the dollar sign.
But work is not a contract and people are not slaves. Work is a covenant. Work is where people give of themselves and receive others into their lives. A covenant is written in blood, not ink, and the workplace can be one of the most powerful experiences of friendship, loyalty and trust. Work is an exchange of lives - real flesh and blood. Many people know this, but are often unable to articulate it.
What this country needs, therefore, is “personal covenants” where people are on the look out for each other so that the very sharing of their lives makes their work both fruitful and fun. We have a great opportunity to clarify the meaning of work with the government’s new work proposals.
Work is, as Pope John Paul II never tired of reminding us, a profound opportunity to give of ourselves, form a communion of persons and thus fulfil our earthly destiny. Let’s devalue the dollar - again!