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Part 1: Catholic Social Teaching and the rights of workers

Worker’s Day is on the 1 May. In a two-part series Mphuthumi Ntabeni looks at what the Catholic Church, specifically Catholic Social Teaching, says about the rights of workers and the duties of employees. Many Catholics do not know that the Church was at the forefront ─ and played a major role ─ in shaping global industrial policies. He attempts to apply the teachings of Catholic Social Teaching to labour relations in South Africa. This is part one.

Since the publication of the encyclical, Rerum Novarum (15 May 1891), the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) put herself at the forefront of fighting for worker’s rights. But the one encyclical within the Catholic Social Teaching (CST) tradition, that dealt comprehensively with the topic, was Laborem Exercens (LE), published on the 14 September 1981 by Pope St John Paul II. This document sets out the Catholic view of workers’ rights. It went on to play a great role in global industrial policies for the modern era. It is unique in the sense that it is an informed critique against the dictatorships of both the markets (as propagated by extreme liberalism) and the proletariat (as propagated by communist ideology). The encyclical placed CST at the centre in opposition to the collective that extinguishes the worker as an individual.

According to CST, the worker owns her/his own labour and may dispose of it freely. If the worker cannot get a fair price for it from an employer on her/his own, because she/he is at an extreme disadvantage due to the inequality of power between them, they may join with others workers to negotiate jointly. This is called ‘collective bargaining’. The worker may also refuse to work – that is to say, strike – if she/he is not satisfied with the outcome. This is what CST outlined.

The current strike in South Africa, which is organised by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), is therefore following a natural course of things according to CST. I don’t believe R20 an hour is an unfair wage demand considering the current cost of living. It is still lower than the UN agreed ‘Living Wage’ which the Catholic Church, following the dictates of her CST, was the first global institution to demand on behalf of all workers.

Under the laissez faire free market system it is the employer who goes to the market to buy labour. The employer pays only as much as is necessary to get the amount he needs. The employer owns the means of production, which the labourer must have access to if she/he is to give her/his work any value. This system, which operates in the greater part of the Anglo-American business world, argues that the ownership of the means of production is at the essence of capitalism. It is, therefore, only by the expenditure of ‘capital’ that those means of production exist at all. This means the employer can benefit from the inequality between himself and the worker.

Pope John Paul II, in LE, was against this attitude; he was regarded as a staunch critic of the free market system. According to this attitude, the employer has no real responsibilities towards those he employs, beyond paying their wages ─ unless the state imposes responsibilities on him. When the labourer sells her/his labour as a commodity, to be bought and sold on the labour market, it is no longer theirs, but is the employers.

CST is against this, calling it an ‘alienation’ of the worker from his labour ─ as if they were two separate entities ─ and regards it as an injustice. CST argues that collective bargaining is a way of fighting against the dictatorship of free market forces, which extinguishes the individuality of a worker into just an impersonal means of production.

LE sees ‘man’ [people] as possessing an inalienable vocation (a calling) to work, and not simply to provide for himself and his dependents, but for personal dignity. Theologically, it sees man’s creativity as an extension of God’s creativity, in line with the biblical revelation of regarding man as created in the image of God. The concept of co-creativity, or co-operating with the divine, elevates work to a high and noble status. The natural creativity of human beings should, CST argues, therefore be respected, esteemed, protected, and nurtured.

CST is sometimes at odds with other alternative strands of Christianity, in particularly some forms of Protestantism that treat work as a chore, or virtually as a punishment ─ being seen as part of the result of original sin. One consequence of this difference is that in the Catholic understanding of work, workers have a right to enjoy what they do because it must fulfil their creative ability. Consequently, CST treats ‘job satisfaction’ as natural, normal and necessary. CST believes people have an inborn right to work as a means to maintaining their dignity. Being prevented from working is an unnatural state, harmful to the individual, and a denial of their fundamental human rights.

The South African Constitution is in agreement with CST. Like most progressive countries, it derives its ideals from the Church’s CST tradition. This is why I am flabbergasted to notice how many seem to take the violation of these human rights lightly when it comes to the poor majority of our country. Others go as far as treating the unemployed, and underemployed, as criminals when they merely exercise their rights to stand up against inhumane and humiliating conditions.

Image: Pexels

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.