Justice in the workplace: Working to Live or Living to Work?


‘The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.’1

To those of us who perceive the Church as being solely interested in the spiritual realm, these opening words taken from Pope Paul VI’s 1965 encyclical Gaudium et Spes spell out clearly the deep commitment she has to the liberation of all unjust economic, social or political structures. Perhaps the most familiar institutional structure in our everyday lives is that of the workplace. Ideally, all situations of industrial labour relations should uphold and be mindful of two fundamental principles of Catholic Social Teaching (CST); namely the common good and solidarity. It is the purpose of this article to touch upon each of these in the context of the employment relationship. The protection of the common good of all is the first and fundamental principal which defines how the dignity of the person is to be affirmed. The notion of the common good really stems from a social morality, and is defined by CST as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily’2 . CST has consistently maintained that ‘work is for man and not man for work’. Work – as an expression of human nature – has its own inherent dignity and therefore labour should be given priority over capital. Laborem Exercens, written by Pope John Paul II in 1981, reminds us that ‘Once more the fundamental principle must be repeated: the hierarchy of values and the profound meaning of work itself require that capital should be at the service of labour and not labour at the service of capital’3 . The encyclical also warns that in the chase for increased material profits, the worker can be simply looked upon as a means of production. This treatment of humans as just labour inputs fails to recognise their intrinsic dignity as creatures made in the likeness of God: ‘The attainment of workers’ rights cannot, however, be deemed to be merely a result of economic systems which on a larger or smaller scale are guided chiefly by the criterion of maximum profit’4 . This statement echoes the first of the Church’s social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (1891), in which Pope Leo XIII denounced rapid industrialisation and ‘laissez faire’ capitalist ideology which led to the misery, poverty and exploitation of the working classes. Laborem Exercens also affirms that the productive process is central to understanding the problems of today’s world: ‘It is rather in order to highlight – perhaps more than has been done before – the fact that human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.’5 As recently as 2009 Pope Benedict XVI restated his concern over the effects of unbridled capitalism. Caritas in Veritate states that ‘there is a growing conviction that business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business, the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference.’6 Indeed, such an attitude is becoming increasingly evident in business practices such as corporate social responsibility reporting, formal accountability to stakeholders and voluntary health and environmental programmes. The quotation above from Caritas in Veritate essentially summarises the industrial face of the principle of solidarity. According to CST, solidarity is both a social principle and a moral virtue, ‘directed par excellence to the common good… to ‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage’.7 CST clearly expresses that workers have the fundamental right to a fair wage, humane working conditions and time for recreation and family life. Where these rights are lacking or deficient, worker solidarity in the form of trade unions is a morally justifiable way for these rights to be achieved. This includes the right to a peaceful strike when other alternatives have failed to deliver their legitimate aims. Laborem Exercens elaborates on the role of trade unions by commenting that they ‘are indeed a mouthpiece for social justice, for the just rights of working people… their union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity’8 . With reference to strikes, the same encyclical observes that ‘One method used by unions in pursuing the just rights of their members is the strike or work stoppage, as a kind of ultimatum to the competent bodies, especially the employers. This method is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits. In this connection workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike. While admitting that it is a legitimate means, we must at the same time emphasize that a strike remains, in a sense, an extreme means. It must not be abused; it must not be abused especially for “political” purposes’9 . In the modern industrial society the structures of ownership and control can be complex. And as can be deduced from the recent popularity of the term ‘stakeholder’, many parties are involved in or affected by even simple labour arrangements. In this context, Pope John Paul II distinguishes between the direct and the indirect employer: ‘Since the direct employer is the person or institution with whom the worker enters directly into a work contract in accordance with definite conditions, the concept of the indirect employer includes both persons and institutions of various kinds… and refers to many different elements. The responsibility of the indirect employer differs from that of the direct employer – the term itself indicates that the responsibility is less direct – but it remains a true responsibility’10. The role of the government as a source of authority and stewardship of labour markets is also made explicit: ‘the concept of the indirect employer is applicable to every society and in the first place to the state, for it is the state that must conduct a just labour policy’11.


1 Gaudium et Spes (1965), paragraph 1

2 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004). Paragraph 164

3 Laborem Exercens (1981), paragraph 23

4 ibid, paragraph 17

5 ibid, paragraph 3

6 Caritas in Veritate (2009), paragraph 40

7 Compendium, paragraph 193

8 Laborem Exercens, paragraph 20

9 ibid, paragraph 20

10 ibid, paragraphs 16, 17

11 ibid, paragraph 17

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