Meditations for Layfolks - The Living Wage

Among the other sins which we are told cry to Heaven for vengeance is the defrauding of labourers of their wages. How is this defrauding done? By not paying them adequate wages. Adequate to what? Not to their work, but to their dignity as human beings. Here turns the whole controversy of living wage; but for Catholics it is no controversy at all, having been settled by the Papal Letters of Leo XIII. In these letters it is laid down repeatedly that an employer of labour is obliged, if he accepts a man to work, to pay him sufficient to support himself, his wife, and his children: in other words, the dignity of human nature is altogether different from the beasts of the field. A horse is cared for and fed that it may be enabled to do the work for which its services are required; and when it can no longer work or its work is no longer needed, it is got rid of, or given a sufficiency of food. But man, to those whose eyes are lit up by faith, is sacred by reason of his immortality and by reason of the shedding of Christ's Blood. Once I realize in my own person the worth of my soul and the dread price paid for its redemption, I must begin to take a high view of my responsibility to other human beings. If, therefore, I employ a man, woman, or child, in any industry over which I have control, I must see that the conditions of life I offer them are not inhuman, that they are humanly cared for, and that the wage given to them is sufficient to provide them with the decencies of life. I must never attempt to look upon the wage as an exact equivalent for work; but I must consider that the man is dependent on me. Either, therefore, I must tell him to leave my service or take upon myself his upkeep.

The reason of all this is clear. Their right must be founded on some duty. It is their duty to live. God has put them into the world to know, love, and serve Him. Now they cannot do these things unless they are physically as fit as they can be. Hence they have a distinct obligation to live and keep themselves in such a condition as will enable them to obey God's commands: this means further that they must develop to the full the reasonable possibilities with which God has endowed them - they are obliged to put to His service every faculty they can; hence they have a right to whatever is reasonably necessary for this purpose. In other words, they have a right to existence, not in the sense of bare subsistence, but as including a decent livelihood. Now in a wage-earning society, such as exists in every modern state or nation, the only means of achieving or guaranteeing this decency of existence is by a living wage. Hence, if I have men working for me and giving me of their best work (whether they are able to work well or ill does not really enter into the question; it is sufficient that they are human souls and that they give me the benefit of their day), I am bound to provide for them a living wage as a first charge upon profits. Before I recompense myself or begin to talk of what is due to me as owner, I must first determine to pay living wages. It is a solemn obligation lying on me as a Catholic, however small may be the number I employ.

But how does this affect me who, perhaps, employ no workers? It affects me in this way, that I may not encourage those whom I know to underpay their employees. I may not invest moneys in firms that I know scandalously sweat their workers. I may not even buy at shops where it is notorious that living wages are not given, unless, of course, it is something which I greatly need and which I cannot otherwise obtain. Is it, therefore, my business to inquire of every place I go to whether they are recognized as honest and honourable employers? No, there is no such necessity in the ordinary shops, etc., that I patronize, to make such inquiries. But if it does come to my ears that certain well-known firms have iniquitous ways of dealing with their staff or their workers, then I must in conscience show, in the chief way open to me, my disapproval of their methods. When it is a question of investing in companies, etc., then I should certainly take ordinary means of finding out what conditions prevail in the work; for I am answerable when I deliberately prolong such conditions by encouraging and helping the promoters of it. Once employers were convinced that their clients were really determined on this course, there would be no further trouble. Face to face with God, I must work out all these problems for myself; nor can I well go astray when I cling to the rules of justice. Hard rules of business may prevail; but besides these I must consider the value of human souls. God made them, redeemed them, sanctified them. It is for me to value in others the dignity that God Himself respects.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.