The theme of this month’s E-newsletter is based on the Apostolic Letter ‘Octogesima Adveniens’ addressed by Pope Paul VI to Cardinal Maurice Roy (on 14 May 1971), the then president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. In his letter, Pope Paul VI tries to highlight many social issues faced by the people at the time and tries to inspire renewed action for lay members to participate in social and political reform according to the Gospel.
Why was it then and still important now for the laity to participate in social and political reform? You may ask. It is simply because the pressing issues of the times are always faced by the common people and from time to time it has always been the common people who have sought ways to move those in power and bring about positive change. Likewise, Pope Paul VI points out in paragraph 4 of ‘Octogesima Adveniens’ that “It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church.”
Pope Paul VI calls for “Awakening the People of God” in para 51 and importantly calls for Christian organisations to take responsibility for collective action as he quotes lines from ‘Lumen Gentium’ and ‘Apostolicam Actuositatem’ stating, “It is in this regard too that Christian organizations, under their different forms, have a responsibility for collective action. Without putting themselves in the place of the institutions of civil society, they have to express, in their own way and rising above their particular nature, the concrete demands of the Christian faith for a just, and consequently necessary, transformation of society.”
Building on these ideas put forward by Pope Paul VI, we the laity must engage in renewed action led by our Christian faith, atleast at the community or local level, because it has always been our duty as Christians and also as the principle teaching of CST’s to secure democratic foundations in society by ensuring human dignity and social justice. Therefore through this issue we invite you to be inspired by your faith and take steps towards renewed action.
Let me start this short essay with where we are by bringing what we call “the 4th Industiral Revolution here.” On January 20, 2016, the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, was attended by senior government officials from more than 100 countries and 1,500 CEOs from large companies to discuss “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Klaus Schwab, president of the World Economic Forum, said the huge wave was an opportunity and a challenge.
He said technological innovation “will bring supply-side miracles due to increased productivity,” but it could “deepen inequality and cause serious confusion in the labor market.”
From this, we would say that in this rapidly changing world we face great promises to the future and deadly risks coexist at the same time. Pope Francis feared that the already extreme polarization, inequality, and unjust world situation would worsen into the “fourth industrial revolution.” In a letter to the chairman of the World Economic Forum, the pope said, “The culture of prosperity should not drive us to death and stop us from hearing the suffering and howling of the poor.” In particular, he stressed that “a new business model should be created,” fearing “a surge in inequality and poverty” and “a sharp decrease in the number of jobs.”
At that time, Oxfam, the world’s largest international relief and development organization, announced, “The wealth of the 62 richest people is equivalent to the wealth of half the world’s population.” In this situation of wealth polarization, our sense of problem is that we have entered an era where the form of labor and the consciousness of workers are rapidly changing.
Of course, what I mentioned just above is quite different from the era when Pope Leo XIII lived. It is clear that Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum precisely because he saw significant injustice in the plight of the working class. He believed that justice in the realm of work includes right working conditions proper to the dignity of each worker, and sufficient income and benefits to maintain material wellbeing. Another word, Leo XIII maintained that labor must serve the good of the worker. It should be the work that promotes the human development of the individual worker and contributes positively to the good of society. Decent work must be categorized by its fairness to the personal and social dimensions of human labor.
When Pope Leo XIII wrote the document, it was during the Second Industrial Revolution and the development of industrial labor led to a significant spread of factory-style mechanical labor. As I mentioned in the last newsletter, Leo XIII defended the principles of private property and markets, but did not see the free contract system as complete. This was because powerful capitalists saw that contracts with weak workers were not equal and that human rights of many workers were violated.
Under the current economic system led by neoliberalism, labor is highly fragmented and contractual labor dominates. Now, not the era of proletariat, but the era of Pricariat, which refers to the unstable labor-free class suffering from low-wage and low-skilled labor, has arrived. It is a combination of the Italian word Precario, which means unstable, and proletariat. More commonly used in Europe, the term refers to persons in short-term jobs, without job security or benefits such as health insurance, sick time and reimbursement for vehicle maintenance. Workers who are part of the precariat lack the ability to bargain over the terms of their employment.
When examining such a unequal economic system mainly good for those in the power to “influence”, if not control, the market economy, it remains helpful to recall Leo XIII’s assessment to “free contract”. He noted that even if workers accept harsh conditions due to an employer’s unwillingness to offer better conditions, it implies that the worker does not freely consent but ends up with the victim of unjust coercion often. Under the circumstance, the contract between the capitalist and the laborer is problematic especially when there are few better options for members of the precariat. It is a well-known fact that there has been a trend in tradition of Catholic church to protect and promote not only the physical dimension but also the spiritual one of humans. However, it must be seen that how many of these unsteady and fragmented workers will live humane lives is quite different from the times of Leo XIII’s writing this document in 130 years ago.
It is surely the case that the class struggle between the capitalists and the laborers theorized by Karl Marx may not be valid any longer even in some Asian countries where, for instance, insurance fund collected from the laborers is spent for paying for the retirement pension of the capitalists! Rather, the tension and discrimination among regular workers and irregular contract workers themselves are getting increased more and more. The church, therefore, must be careful and alert in responding to the needs of the laborers in various situations.
The Church has made ethical judgments on social issues and published them in writings, which is called Catholic Social Teaching, CST. These texts are necessarily influenced by, and are intended to answer, the major social problems of the time. The encyclical “On Capital and Labor”(Rerum Novarum) is an important social teaching of the Church that illustrates this well.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII published the first papal document to present a comprehensive view of social issues, entitled “Rerum Novarum“. The pope strongly criticized the problems of capitalism as well as the illusions of socialism that were popular at the time. Since the 18th century, industrialization has progressed rapidly, leading to new technologies and major changes in laborer-capitalist relations. The polarization of wealth, which very few possess and many suffer from poverty, emerged as a major problem. The problem of poor working conditions faced by workers at that time was one of the serious side effects of industrialization. Although industrialization and factory labor have made great progress in productivity, they have forced workers to sacrifice themselves on the other hand. In addition to adult male workers, women and young children often worked long hours. Wages were lowered and life was impoverished. Long hours of work fatally deteriorated workers’ health and contributed to physical illness, disasters and accidents. In this situation, Rerum Novarum said the church supports workers’ legitimate demands, such as ensuring workers’ legitimate wages and the right to form labor unions.
The papal document rather concretely addresses the human rights situation of workers in this situation as follows: “…the first thing of all to secure is to save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making. It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies…. Finally, work which is quite suitable for a strong man cannot rightly be required from a woman or a child. And, in regard to children, great care should be taken not to place them in workshops and factories until their bodies and minds are sufficiently developed.” (no. 42)
For this reason, the Rerum Novarum was also known as the “Magna Carta of Labor”. The meaning of the Magna Carta of Labor can be given to workers in modern society in terms of protecting and promoting human dignity, which not only has a lot of influence on labor laws in Western countries, but has become the basis of labor laws in their countries.
The document acknowledges that private property rights are fundamental human rights and natural rights, and that it is impossible for human power to completely eliminate social inequality, while presenting obligations for capitalists and employers. The most important duty is to pay workers fair wages. Even if workers and employers sign contracts and decide wages through bilateral agreements, basic justice should always be reflected. Wages should not be insufficient for workers to maintain a frugal life and a minimum comfortable life.
Rerum Novarum emphasizes the importance of defining distributions. It points out that it is a proper duty for the rich to distribute goods to the poor, except for what is essential to their lives and necessary to maintain their status. It also points out that the most important duty of a national ruler is to strictly and fairly abide by the just distribution and take care of citizens of all walks of life. After this document, the Catholic Church became deeply interested in and participated in prophetic works that protect human dignity from social injustice, poverty and the gap between rich and poor, human rights violations and discrimination, violence and war.
In fact, since the document, the Catholic Church has consistently announced rules of association based on social interest since the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum by publishing Quadragesimo Annus by Pius XI in 1931. In 1981, Pope John Paul II updated and commemorated the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum in 1991 by publishing Centesimus Annus showing “how the Church should understand and speak out about labor and labor issues in the changing world”.
As such, Rerum Novarum has had a significant impact on the enactment of labor-related laws in many countries including Germany since the 20th century by proposing concrete measures to promote human rights of workers in serious condition.
The turn of the 18th and 19th century introduced to the world a new shift called ‘The Industrial Revolution’. Rapid technological developments in Agriculture and Handicrafts in the 18th century meant that very few workers were required to work on farms and looms. Due to which masses of people from rural areas began to migrate to urban cities looking for employment opportunities in the factories hoping to earn a better living. This change to an industrialised economy gave rise to a vast group of people who worked for daily wages and salaries in all kinds of Industries became to be known as the ‘The Working Class’; the most important contributor of our economies.
But what was seemingly true is that the Individuals who owned these Industries were the only ones who became richer leaving behind the working class in the same situation as they started off in. The working class were underpaid, heavily exploited at the workplace, forced into physical labour in harmful and hazardous work environments and were made to work extremely hard and overtime, ensuring industrial goals were met. Today, almost 200 years later we can still witness how most of these ill practices continue to exist in the industrial sector in spite of the numerous interventions made by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other global bodies on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
We continue to witness how front line workers still struggle to access a quality life, earn a satisfactory living, find a safe work environment as well as find a stable and secure job. We simply cannot ignore this in our time right now! We need to take inspiration from the Papal Encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ (Of Revolutionary Change) written by Pope Leo XIII way back in 1891. Though we will celebrate the 130th Anniversary in the month of May, we need to practice some of its principles which still hold strong and important even today. As Pope Leo XIII rightly points out that the Government has a crucial role to play and so does the Law and the Employer. But without a doubt every christian as well as the church has a crucial role to play in fixing the poor condition of the working class in our society and the world at large. More over right now amid the 2nd or 3rd wave of the Corona Virus pandemic we have seen countless sights of the daily wage workers struggling to find their way back home in countries across the world especially in Asia and suffer from homelessness and hunger due to unemployment and mass layoffs in many Industries. It is very urgent for us to seek out, take action and care for the working class people by ensuring that they receive adequate food supplies, transport facilities, as well as medical aid during these unfortunate times. We also need to immediately set up systems which can support these circumstances if they ever arise again.
On the contrary we also witnessed that the Wealthy 1% grew even more rich amid the ongoing pandemic while the rest have been downtrodden and burdened with low incomes and debt. This needs to be fixed as one cannot continue to be selfish and withhold resources when employees working under the same rich employer is burdened with debt. Thus ALL Forum Invites our readers to reflect on the many struggles of the Working Class and in our own ways to support those in need with deliberate action and care.