Justice, equity and a living wage

By  Ted Schmidt
  • November 15, 2011

Armed with the extraordinary social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, I recently made a deputation to a City of Toronto committee examining contracting out work currently being done by unionized cleaning staff.

As a concerned citizen, father, grandfather and former educator who has taught social ethics to thousands, I am appalled at the attack on the workers’ rights to earn a living wage. But, sadly, this is not an isolated case involving one group of low-paid cleaners. There is a trend evident across many levels of public life and private enterprise to squeeze wages from working families.

It is unlikely that many, if any, members of the committee were previously aware of Catholic teaching as it relates to the common good of the broader community. This teaching, which began with Pope Leo Xlll in 1891 and was reinforced by several popes since, is built on the inherent dignity of each human person. It resembles the call to compassion and justice at the heart of all religions.

No matter what the social issue, solutions must ultimately be based on the fundamental bedrock of the dignity of the worker. It is a lesson founded on the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and can be applied to city hall cleaners as all other workers whose right to earn a livable wage is challenged.

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII, looking out for defenceless workers, said: “Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others.”

That point was emphasized at the beginning of the global depression in 1931 when Pope Pius XI stated: “Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman.”

Opponents have always argued that wage levels should be left to the market. But the market operates without compassion and often lacks the justice demanded by the Church.

In his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII proclaimed that a living wage was clearly a justice issue: “We therefore consider it our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.”

I taught high school for a decade in the largest ethnic drop-out community in Toronto. I witnessed the price paid by families with absentee fathers and mothers working several jobs at minimum wage. The social cost in family violence and teenage abandonment was too great. Where there should have been nourishing homes with family meals, rich conversation and good psychic food, vulnerable youth were left to fend for themselves in a coarse culture.

This race to the bottom, this failure to strengthen family life with living wages, is a deep insult to any definition of social cohesion. It is short-term thinking that will have deleterious effects on families and neighbourhoods. It also flies in the face of humanist education and the wisdom not only of the Church but also the compassion of the Abrahamic faiths.

(Schmidt is the author of Journeys to the Heart of Catholicism.)

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