Work is dignifying. Work is a fundamental aspect of our human existence. Our labour gives us purpose and allows us to contribute to the creativity of the world, and to our living well within it. Pope Francis has said, ‘Those who do not have work feel that something is missing, that they lack the dignity that work gives.’ To say it again, work is dignifying.

The national Jobs and Skills Summit, underway this week, has as its purpose ‘to find common ground on how Australia can build a bigger, better-trained and more productive workforce; boost real wages and living standards; and create more opportunities for more Australians.’ This is a challenging endeavour, given the complexity of the issues at stake. Coalescing around the unifying idea that work is dignifying for people might offer a guiding motivation for those gathering for the Summit and for the work to come.

But such a unifying idea also needs to be put into practice. We might identify three key practices (among others) that ensure the dignity of work.

First, there is a need for dignifying the work itself that is undertaken. There are countless ways of working, and countless types of employment and enterprise. But such endeavours need to be, in themselves, purposeful and useful. Labour that is either not productive for others or not good for the person undertaking it will not benefit the purposeful living of our humanity. Creating meaningful jobs and useful enterprises—from the most basic to the more complex—is a creative task for the world and is a good for the individual. The type of work one does, and the conditions under which it is done, makes a difference to the sense of worth that is fostered in a person. Moreover, that goodness is then shared with the families and dependants of those who work.

Second, there is a need for a dignifying remuneration for what someone produces for, or contributes to society. Not everyone need be exceedingly wealthy, nor should that be the case; but receiving a fair remuneration for a fair day’s work is important. Earning a living wage that will allow someone to modestly provide for themselves, and those dependent upon them, is a matter of justice. There are all sorts of mechanisms by which this can be achieved—enterprise agreements, contractual arrangements, income-generating investment, superannuation and the like. However, it is the commitment to ensuring a fair, living wage that will aid in building a happy workforce and an entrepreneurial spirit: ‘I have contributed, and my contribution has been recognised.’ This is dignifying.

Third, there is a need for dignifying opportunities to engage in work. A society that gives up on seeking to provide meaningful work for all those looking to make a contribution is a society that has given up on the good of its people. Generating opportunities for meaningful work is crucial to giving people purpose in their lives and a goal to strive for. This means that pathways for entering the workforce need to be provided that do not require everyone having a university degree. Pathways to attaining both knowledge and know-how need to be fostered, for each person has a different set of gifts and capacities. Offering different formative pathways—involving a combination of head, heart and hands—will dignify a person seeking to make their humble contribution.

Work is dignifying, but work’s dignity also needs to be fostered and protected. I hope that this will be a motivating idea for those attending the Jobs and Skills Summit and for the important initiatives that emerge.