On the Living Wage and Wage Slavery in Catholic Social Teaching

In New Zealand there is currently a campaign in support of a Living Wage. While the adult minimum wage here is currently $13.50 an hour (see rates) the proposed living wage for a couple with kids is $18.40 (according to research done bythe Family Centre Social Policy Research Unit). The living wage campaign aims at morally persuading employers to pages wages adequate for their employees to support their families in a life with dignity with full-time work.

Supporters of the campaign include church agencies from all denominations. I was a little bemused to see that the director of the Catholic development agency, Caritas, was reported in the following way:

Speaking in support of the principle of a living wage, Caritas Director Julianne Hickey says Catholic social teaching has long supported the concept that workers have a right to a just participation in the fruits of their labour. This means working people must be able to look after their families adequately on what they earn.

‘The concept of a living wage was developed over 100 years ago by United States theologians, a very practical application of Catholic social teaching on just wages,’ says Mrs Hickey.  [SOURCE]

I’m not which theologians she is referring to, but for Catholic Social teaching on the notion of wages I would go to the source of modern Catholic Social Teaching – Pope Leo XIII. In his seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum he outlined several principles of just wages. It is worth noting that the tradition of just wages is based on the medieval notion of the just price, a common church teaching several centuries old.

The word ‘just’ is critical. It is does not refer to just as automatically coming from the negotiations between a willing buyer and willing seller as found in economic versions of justice. Theologians commonly hold to other versions of justice, as Leo XIII outlines:

Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent, and therefore the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond. The only way, it is said, in which injustice might occur would be if the master refused to pay the whole of the wages, or if the workman should not complete the work undertaken; in such cases the public authority should intervene, to see that each obtains his due, but not under any other circumstances. (Rerum Novarum, ¶43)

Leo XIII goes on to say that in the case of wages, there is a higher natural law than the market governing what it is right to pay someone:

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. (Rerum Novarum, ¶45)

So even from this one source we may conclude that the Catholic Church has good reasons for supporting the Living Wage campaign and argue against wages that are too low for families to support themselves. But there is another issue here that Catholic Social Teaching can shed light on, and that is the notion of Wage Slavery.

This notion has been a concern of the Catholic form of social theology called Distributism. Distributism is an interpretation of Catholic Social Teaching which was promoted by Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. Another distributist was the Irish Dominican Vincent McNabb, who advocated that while we should support a wage based on the standard of living (instead of a standard of dying!) we should also reject the idea that everyone should be a wage-earner. He thought that as many people as possible should own their own means to earn a living. The distributists believed that when people become wholly dependent on wages or the welfare state they were reduced to the status of slaves, hence, Belloc’s book The Servile State.

McNabb followed Leo XIII when he writes that:

The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners. (Rerum Novarum, ¶46)

By increasing ownership he thought that wage-earning would decrease, with favourable social benefits.  For more on McNabb’s ideas see his The Church and the Land.

It would be interesting to learn how many New Zealanders who were previously owners of their own businesses or owned their own means of production (perhaps by being artisans or independent tradespeople) are now reduced to the status of wage-earners in the employ of others. For example, how many butchers and bakers have been driven to shut up shop, only to be employed behind the counters at large supermarkets? They might still make ends meet, but they have sacrificed no small amount of freedom in the process.

Is a living or minimum wage the best some people can now hope for? Or can we also value the small business person to gain some control over their economic life by being a owner of their own business?

Sadly in New Zealand too many people can only aspire to be a wage-earner and rent-payer, rather than a owner of their own home paid for by their earned surplus.