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 two.
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) puts an obligation on employers to make work as creative as possible, so that the individual has as much control as possible over the work she/he does, and, therefore, can feel as much pride and satisfaction as possible about what they do. The encyclical Laborem Exercens (LE), published on the 14 September 1981 by Pope John Paul II, goes as far as to indicate that this condition is not met if the work in question consists simply of a single task, monotonously repeated hundreds of times throughout the working day, i.e. the conditions of most factory work.
CST demands that work be part of integral human development, to contribute not only to the good of the worker, but to the common good of the community and, therefore, society. Far from seeing work as undignified ─ or worse, something to be avoided if at all possible ─ the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) sees the right to work as an inalienable consequence of human dignity. Many RCC teachings and insights are taught in industrial psychology. We now know that treating workers with respect and ‘giving them a say’, improves both productivity and industrial relations.
However, CST goes further, it says that as a matter of principle, labour takes precedence over capital because labour is human and capital merely material. Therefore CST asserts that the workforce is a major stakeholder in business alongside its shareholders, and should, therefore, have a share in decision-making.
Company structures that reflect CST, for example in places like Germany, routinely include representatives of the workforce on company boards. As a result, employees understand and take responsibility for their share in the success of the company. There is no ‘us and them’ attitude between employees and managers. This can be a crucial factor in wage bargaining and in discouraging industrial action. Simply observe how few industrial strikes there are in Germany, and also notice that it is one of the most productive markets in the world.
Including workers in how companies are run has implications for the way management manages change, which can be one of the most important, difficult and stressful aspects of the vocation of a business manager. To be able to engage directly and share decision-making with representatives of the workforce enables managers to find consensual solutions which are a fair balance between different interests. This arrangement symbolises the truth that wealth creation requires both labour and capital. The task of management, therefore, is to find the best relationship between them which will, in the end, serve both of them. This can mean painful choices, including limits on pay, job reductions, plant or branch closures, etc. It also means restraint on executive pay and bonuses. The best circumstances for handling those choices is when the interests of all the stakeholders can be taken into account in the course of the decision-making process.
The German experience shows that co-determination can actually increase the range of options and create an innate desire to ensure that things succeed for both workers and managers.
It is such a pity that in South Africa business and public policy seems to follow the reductive, greed ridden and worker-alienating combustive promoted within the Anglo-American system ─ whose ultimate goal is to maximise profit for the owners of capital at all costs. The only way to avoid ‘strike season’ in this system, is by attempting to cripple worker's unions so they don’t wield any power in government policy development. This is commonly recalled as “Thatcherism”. They also use the lobbying power of the wealthy, not just to drive government policy, but to form a government that looks after the interest of the rich. This can also be called an oligarchy – something I think the USA is fast turning into, if it has not already become such. Fundamentally, employers should regard their workforce as their greatest asset.
A workforce will make the greatest contribution, in return, when it is treated with true dignity – ‘treated like responsible human beings’ – and works for the success of the enterprise. In this way the enterprise takes on the ‘shared character’ where everyone is responsible and everyone benefits from the successful businesses.
I sometimes suspect that many, were they to really understand how radical CST is ─ and for that matter, how radical authentic Christianity is ─ would feel discouraged and daunted by the way things are and rethink the positions that we currently hold.
It helps me understand Jesus’s concern about whether the Son of Man would find faith in the world when he returned. As things are now, it seems to me, we have ─ like the Pharisees ─ diluted his message to suit what we can stomach, what I term ‘supermarket Christianity/Catholicism’.
Sadly, for me, this failure often rests with the leaders of the Church who are at times complicit in white-washing the demands of our faith to accommodate the privileges of the powerful and rich. Maybe they are too comfortable with the status quo, and fear what might be perceived to threaten social peace.
I think that the aggressive reaction, within the church, to Pope Francis who takes the demands of our faith very seriously, is symbolic of just how complicit we have become with the unjust status quo.