Today, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, the Church invites us to see Joseph as someone who, through his energy and the use of his skills, gave added value to raw material and, in so doing, fulfilled himself as a person and provided for the needs of his family. Today, whether the worker is a woman or a man, and whether the “raw material” is to be thought of in terms of materials like wood or electronic data, or service given to people, the Church invites us to celebrate the fruitfulness of human work, for the worker, for his or her family and for the common good of society.
Pope John Paul, in his encyclical letter on work (Laborem Exercens, 1981) reminded us that, while the usefulness of work tends to be graded according to its economic value and its social status, “the primary basis of the value of work is man himself”. In other words, it is not the work that he or she does that gives value to a person. On the contrary, the value of what is achieved through work is first and foremost due to the fact that it is a person who does the work.
Every now and then a TV documentary reminds us that, in the not too distant past, agricultural and industrial workers in Ireland and Britain had to turn up for work each day and wait in the hope of being picked, much as children pick a football team. There was no guaranteed weekly wage and this placed whole families at risk. One might have thought that, with all of the employment legislation that has been introduced in recent years, ad hoc working arrangements of this kind might have disappeared. They may have changed! But they have not gone away.
It is right and just that employers and entrepreneurs should make profit to compensate for their investment and for the risk that they take. But the profit made by those who control capital should not be disproportionate to the income received by those who provide the work that ultimately gives value to capital. A just wage is not determined simply by the need of the employer to make profit, but must also take into account the need of the worker to live with dignity and to provide for the needs of his or her dependent family members.
The practice of “zero-hour contracts” whereby workers are theoretically employed, and have to be available on a full-time basis but with a guarantee of no more than 25% actual employment and income, is simply another form of “hiring fair”. It is designed to give all the advantage and flexibility to the employer (or to capital) at the expense of the person who actually brings the greatest value to the work. The needs of the economy are often offered as an excuse for the exploitation of workers, or indeed for unemployment. The word “economy” comes from the Greek word for “household”. In our attempts to grow the economy, we need to remember that the economy is meant to be for people, rather than people being FOR the economy.