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People in the workforce

30 November, 1999

“Work is for the benefit of human beings, not human beings for the benefit of the production process.” This is the central point that Peter McVerry SJ emphasises in this helpful run through the papal encyclicals on the problems of human work and economic life.

John works fourteen hours a day in a sweatshop, earning two dollars a day, producing goods that will sell in the West at high prices, making considerable profits for already wealthy shareholders in a well-known multinational company.

Such a situation, repeated again and again in our world today, cannot be a matter of indifference to those who believe in a God who created John and loves him with an infinite love.

Dominant theme
The problems of human work and economic life have been a very dominant theme right throughout the Catholic Church’s social teaching. The very first encyclical, Rerum Novarum, by Pope Leo XlII in 1891 was written to address the problem of the exploitation of workers. Ninety years later, in 1981, Pope John Paul II again addressed the same problem, but in very different circumstances, in his magnificent encyclical Laborem Exercens, which, in my opinion, is the most radical document that the Holy See has ever produced.

For the Church, work is one of the five basic human rights, along with food, health, education and housing. It is a basic right because the capacity to work distinguishes human beings from all other species of animals. It is a basic right because, by work, human beings imitate God the Creator and co-operate with God in creating and developing our world. It is a basic right because, through work, human beings express their creativity and achieve their fulfilment as human beings.

If work then is such a basic right, the Church sees it as her duty to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work and to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated. In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo called attention to the appalling conditions in which people had to work and the inadequate wages they were frequently paid. He demanded conditions and wages which respected the needs and dignity of workers.
Pope Leo was widely condemned, both by many business people and many of his own bishops, who told him the Church had no business interfering in the affairs of work and economic life, and should return to saving souls. But Pope Leo would not give in; the dignity of workers was at stake, and the dignity of the children of God is very much at the centre of the Church’s business.

In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II looks at the changing nature of work. While ninety years previously, work was frequently hard, back-breaking manual labour, the advance of technology in recent times has created new opportunities for workers, but also new problems and new threats.

Today human beings are frequently treated as cogs in an industrial machine, another impersonal force (‘workforce’) necessary for the production of goods or services, whose humanity is ignored when it comes to the workplace. Pope John Paul II expresses his unambiguous support for those workers who join together in demonstrations of solidarity, to oppose their exploitation in the field of wages, working conditions and social security.

In an extraordinary radical critique, Pope John Paul II criticizes the priority of capital in the Western capitalist economy and insists on ‘the principle of the priority of labour over capital’. In this simple principle, which he calls ‘an evident truth’, Pope John Paul II turns the Western capitalist economy on its head, an economy in which capital has priority over labour.

His understanding of the right to private property, which underpins the capitalist economy, is also extremely radical. While affirming the right to private property, Pope John Paul also insisted that the ‘only legitimate title to their possession (the ownership of the means of production) is that they should serve labour’. In the organization of work, human beings must be at the very centre and not just another input into the process. Work is for the benefit of human beings, not human beings for the benefit of the production process.

Peace and prosperity
In the world economy, the phenomenon of globalization has been gathering pace over the past few decades, providing both new opportunities but also new dangers for workers. In 1967, in Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI reflects on the enormous gap between the economically developed and underdeveloped parts of the world and on the relationships between the richer countries and the poorer ones. This gap, he notes, is getting wider all the time.

Free trade cannot be just, he says, when there exists excessive inequality of economic power between nations. Prices which are freely set in the market place can often produce unfair results. Competition must be kept within limits, if it is to be just and fair. The economic development of the poorer nations is a condition for peace in our world. All this has become much more evident in our world today. Indeed Popularum Progressio is a stinging rebuke to the type of capitalism that is operative in the global economy.

Twenty years later, in 1987, Pope John Paul II reflects, in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, on the changes that have occurred in economic relations since Populorum Progressio. He notes that the gap between the richer and poorer nations has continued to widen. Developing nations are often treated as a cog in a gigantic economic machine, which works to the advantage of the more developed nations.

Pope John Paul calls for reform of the international trade system as well as the world monetary and financial systems, which often accentuate the situation of wealth for some and of poverty for others. Where Pope Paul VI emphasized the notion of interdependence, Pope John Paul II emphasizes the need for a more radical interdependence, which transforms into solidarity. Where Pope Paul VI considered that ‘development is the path to peace,’ Pope John Paul II considers that ‘solidarity is the path to both development and peace. ‘

Impact on life
Since human beings spend much of their waking hours at work for most of their adult life, the issue of work, its organization within the economic structures at both national and global level, and its impact on their lives and dignity, cannot be a matter of indifference to the Church. The Church reaffirms the centrality of the person in the productive process, and demands structures, in the workplace and in the economy, which respect the dignity and the humanity of workers.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.