While many injustices have been brought to light and laid bare in front of us during this Covid-19 pandemic, the role of front-line workers is perhaps one of the most prominent.  Whether we are watching the news, reading updates on social media, or just doing our weekly shopping for essential supplies, it is clear that those jobs which may for some have been somewhat hidden from view or deemed of a ‘lesser value’ in society are the ones which we are currently relying on most.  The NHS doctors, nurses and carers, delivery men and women, bus drivers, shop assistants and cleaners are among those whose roles are key to maintaining so many services in the community at this unprecedented time.
Many are asking how we might be able to thank these key workers in due course – and when the pandemic subsides – and whether, for example, a tax holiday might be the way to show our appreciation.  Others have taken to the streets each Thursday evening to clap for the NHS and to show solidarity with these key services which we have been advised will not cope without our cooperation and support both on an individual and a collective basis.  But deep down we know that this is just not enough.
More needs to be done not only to recognise the service that cleaners, shop assistants and other low paid workers are doing for our communities at present and the question of how much they get paid has become a question that is now clearly on the agenda not for those who have been campaigning for the living wage for quite some time but for everyone who now finally sees the significance of this kind of work. Many Catholics will be familiar with the Church’s teaching on the just wage – and have equated it with what might be more commonly known as the living wage – but it is useful to remind ourselves that this is not calculated merely on the basis of a fixed amount that is due to a person by way of compensating them for work done and tasks achieved. Rather, in the Catholic tradition, it is inextricably linked with human dignity and furthermore it is a question that Pope John II argued in Laborem Exercens (1981) should always be on the social agenda.  The question of work should never be taken off the table, especially since fresh questions regarding work are constantly emerging be it about wages, about conditions, about how we are valued or not, and ultimately about how and whether our work supports our life and our ability to live a fulfilled life and to participate in society.
Grounded in the teachings of Pope Leo XII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum,  the introductory sections of Laborem Exercens state that ‘the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help to guide the above-mentioned changes so as to ensure authentic progress by man and society’.  Furthermore, paragraph two makes it clear that work has a ‘value of its own’ but it does so in so far as it is a human being that carries it out (LE #2). 
These concepts build upon Rerum Novarum’s attempt to say how workers should be remunerated and how we ought to view the right to private property for example, but key to understanding how workers should be treated is again the principle of dignity. Although human dignity is a difficult concept to pin down, as human persons we instinctively know when our dignity is not being respected, or when we are expected to accept conditions for work or indeed for life that are less than an adequate reflection of our work and our contribution to a business or organisation.  This concept of dignity came out very strongly in a Living Wage Campaign event held in Leeds this year where a member of the catering staff from Leeds Trinity spoke powerfully about how the living wage had improved her life and prevented her from going into debt.  This living testimony moved everyone in the room to highlight again why this kind of campaign work is so important: it helps people in low paid jobs to live with dignity, to get remunerated properly for what they do and to be appreciated for the contribution they are making to our organisations and our society. Of course, no person at this meeting could have known that a few months later we would all be in lock down with many of our low paid workers continuing to serve our communities with dedication, bravery and commitment to their work – putting themselves at risk every day for the good of their families and for the common good.Amongst others, trade unions are speaking out on behalf of these workers and the Church fully supports this.  Membership of a union – as is outlined in Laborem Exercens – is one way to show solidary and to help to campaign for more just wages and working conditions but more fundamentally we need to dig deeper and see that those who are keeping our society working right now – and who were perhaps hidden from some until this crisis – need to be remunerated properly as a failure to do so would be a failure to respect their human dignity. Hence the concept of paying a just and fair (living) wage that allows people to live with dignity and to participate fully in society is a matter of social justice.
But the Church’s teachings on work do not stop here: the concept of a family wage is also a feature of the social teachings. Rerum Novarum for instance suggests that a ‘family wage’ is what is needed for a man to support his family and his spouse while Quadragesimo Anno (#71) points out that ‘every effort must […] be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately’. 
  Although questions can be raised here about gender equality within families, the concept of a family wage is an interesting one.  Paying a wage that genuinely reflects the living costs of a family is an important consideration for any discussion on work.
This is again highlighted in Pope Francis’ recent letter to popular movements and community organisations who are working tirelessly to ensure that the marginalised are remembered in our communities and are paid a universal basic wage. Although there has been much discussion about what the Pope means by a universal basic wage, it is clear that he wants to acknowledge their basic right to have security but also to thank them for what they are teaching us on a human level.  He addresses them directly saying: ‘You do not resign yourselves to complaining: you roll up your sleeves and keep working for your families, your communities and the common good.  Your resilience helps me, challenges me, and teaches me a great deal’
You can read the full text by following this link
Although discussions on a just, fair, family, and/or living wage have long been on the Church’s social agenda, in today’s context we are invited to return to them and to stress again that in spite of discussions about how the living wage or a universal basic wage might work in practice, the concept of human dignity is a guiding principle in the discussions. 
So, just as Pope Francis describes those who are campaigning for the homelessness and those with no job security as people who are rolling up their sleeves without complaining, let’s roll up our sleeves too – in whatever capacity that we can in the work that we do – to recognise those who are underpaid, undervalued and yet essential to who we are now amidst this pandemic.
Let’s be courageous and speak out about the need for human dignity to be respected in multiple contexts and get involved in campaigns that have grown out of a drive to protect this dignity and enable everyone to enjoy the fruits of their own hard work. 
As Pope Francis points out in his book of reflections on Happiness in This Life (2017), if we are to create a more just society, we need courage. ‘It is a time for courage, even though having courage does not mean having a guarantee of success. Courage is required of us to fight, not necessarily to win, to proclaim, not necessarily to convert. Courage is required of us to be alternative in the world, but without becoming polemical or aggressive. […] Today is a time for courage!  Today courage is needed!  (pg. 16-17)
Dr Ann Marie Mealey has taught ethics at Leeds Trinity University for 14 years. She leads the Philosophy, Ethics and Religion programme.
She is the author of The Identity of Christian Morality (2009) and editor-in-chief of Perspectives in Social Justice (2018). She has also written on environmental ethics, Catholic Social Teaching and social justice from a faith perspective.
More recently, Ann Marie has been promoted to Senior Teaching Fellow and is the programme co-ordinator for the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at Leeds Trinity.  She is also the institutional lead for Fellowship applications
Ann Marie is the co-chair of Leeds Citizens, and is actively involved in promoting the Living Wage campaign across the city of Leeds and beyond. Ann Marie is also a member of the J&P Leeds Commision.