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Reading Rerum Novarum in New Era

Reading Rerum Novarum in New Era

by Dr. Paul Hwang Director of ALL Forum

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.