Mutual Rights And Obligations
The Greed Of Unchecked Competition.
(By The Very Rev. J. Canon Kelleher, S.T.L.)
Just off the Press is Canon Kelleher's ' The Rights and Duties of Labour," a C.T.S. publication which the social rights and just claims of the wage earner in existing conditions a r e defined and his responsibilities set forth.
God Himself solemnly pronounced labour to be man's natural means of providing his material sustenance. With the capacity to labour, man has received a natural and universal means of providing for himself and an inalienable right to the reasonable exercise of that capacity. To understand the claims of labour in the complicated conditions of highly organised modern society, it is essential that we grasp and retain the meaning and implication of this fundamental right attached to labour. On the one hand man as an individual has not a right to maintenance simply from his labour. His labour is the God-given means of maintaining himself, and his right is that no one, individual or community, may prevent him from a reasonable opportunity of labouring fruitfully. No individual or group can be justified in appropriating all available material resources and denying to others all reasonable opportunity of exercising their labour on them, even though prepared to maintain these others in enforced idleness. But man even from the beginning was never a mere isolated individual; he is equally by his very nature a member of society. He must live and labour as a member of society. His right to live by his labour must be enjoyed in accordance with the reasonable conditions and restraints of organised society.
The goods of the earth are not intended to serve merely this individual or that, but all, and all in an orderly way according to the needs of their social nature. This implies, as has been often abundantly proved, the necessity of private ownership in material goods. But while nature prescribes social organisation and private ownership, it has been left to men themselves to fix the lorm of the organisation and to determine the distribution of property.
Here, indeed, our human passions —notably ambition and selfishness— have wrought havoc with natural justice and equity.
At all times selfish men of exceptional ability and enterprise had been chafing against the restraints which moral authority imposed on their self-seeking ambition. When the opportunity offered, they discarded moral authority altogether. The era of unrestrained Individualism commenced and circumstances favoured its inception and development. The intense exploitation of resources hitherto more or less neglected, the power of multiplying material wealth by new processes and by the aid of epoch-making inventions, were able to conceal for a long time its inherent weakness and viciousness. From the commencement of the new era and all through its course, numerous human victims of its ruthless struggle for existence were never wanting. These were conveniently lost sight of in the general spectacle of expanding prosperity.
But the awakening came, as it was bound to come. As Pope Leo expressed it: "The ancient workingmen's guilds were abolished in the last (XVIII) Century, and no other protective organisation took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it came to pass that workingmen have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition."
It would be impossible for mankind to maintain even a barbaric existence if everyone were to be at liberty to take and use any part of the world's material goods as his fancy might suggest. Much less, of course, would it be possible to rise to the most elementary conditions of civilisation.
Through the heroic struggles of the trades unions, workers succeeded, in some countries at least in regaining a certain measure of recognised rights, although they still remained in the anomalous and menacing condition of outsiders in their own land, now commonly known as the Proletariat.
Soon appeared the Socialist movement; materialistic and at its inception positively anti-religious. By skilfully exploiting the grievances, real and imaginary, of the Proletariat, as well as by alluring promises of a veritable workers' paradise on earth, it was succeeding in fostering among workers hostility not only to the Capitalist system, but to the very Christian religion.
Rights of Labour.
It is a comparatively easy moral problem to determine the rights of labour in the abstract. What in the concrete these rights entitle the workers to, depends on the actual conditions of the social organisation itself. That is the real practical problem, a different and altogether more difficult problem. And that is the problem which Leo XIII undertook to deal with in 1891. In every country there existed a sharp division between Capitalists and Socialists on the just claims of labour. But neither side made the slightest attempt to discover the actual rights of labour in the existing circumstances. Capitalists on the one hand, insisting on all the prerogatives of property, and ignoring some of its essential obligations, denied to labour any right beyond that of selling itself on whatever terms it could command. On the other hand Socialists, condemning the existing Capitalistic order as essentially unjust, scorned to speak of or consider any rights of the workers under it beyond that of destroying or transforming it.
There is this aspect of the labour contract to be considered:
Labour is not only a commodity to be freely disposed of in the manner described. It is also necessary to maintain the workers' life; it is the means which nature itself has given him for that end. As he is not supreme master of his own life, he is bound to maintain himself, and accordingly, unless he has some other means of providing for himself, he is not free to dispose of his labour for less than will reasonably maintain him.
The worker's right to a living wage is directly and primarily against the employer to whom he contracts his labour. As long, therefore, as the employer can afford from the products of his industry to pay the living wage, he is bound in justice to do so. It may seem hard that owners and investors who may have built up a business by their industry and savings should have to forego their reasonable rewards in favour of workers who perhaps did nothing towards establishing the industry, and who had no rights in it, not even to be employed at all except on terms acceptable to both parties. That is true ; the workers as such have no right in the business, no claims on it, except in virtue of the contract freely entered into between the employers and themselves. But when that contract is made, the natural price of labour—the living wage —becomes a necessary and primary expense on the business. The owners have a right to just profits; but there can be no just profits until just expenses have been paid.
The rights of labour have corresponding responsibilities. The worker is bound to maintain himself by labour, so long as it is within his power to do so. He is not only false to his own human dignity, but guilty of injustice against the community, whenever, having the opportunity of earning his own livelihood, he elects to live in idleness at the community's expense.
As members of society workers have obligations which correspond very closely with their social rights . It is of supreme importance for the well-being of society in general that workers should realise their responsibility, but at the same time it is extremely difficult for them to do so in the existing conditions of corrupt capitalism. We need not go beyond the great social Encyclicals of Leo and Pius for an exposition of the corruptions of capitalism, or of the injustices to which workers are subjected under it. Modern history also shows us that it is mainly through their own efforts that workers have been able to win a partial relaxation of their most crying grievances. They are perfectly entitled to use their combined strength in defence of the rights they have already secured, and in a further struggle for the rights which are still denied them.
The general interests of the community may suffer through these conflicts, but provided the end for which workers are striving is legitimate, equitable remuneration or equitable working conditions; provided the means they employ are not themselves unjust, and provided the end cannot be attained by peaceful negotiations, then the loss inflicted on the community is not to be ascribed to the workers, but rather to the employers or the community itself, for failing to remove the social injustices.
The rights and duties of workers may be summarised thus: Simply as an independent human being, the worker who has no other means has a right to a reasonable opportunity of maintaining himself by his labour. When employed, he has a strict right to a living wage as a remuneration for his labour. When unable to obtain employment, he has a right to decent maintenance at the expense of the community, in which all available resources have been appropriated and which through inability or indifference does not afford him an opportunity of working.
As a member of society he is entitled in equity to a reasonable opportunity of participating in ail the advantages, material and social, available in the community to which he belongs. He is entitled also to human conditions of labour, as to the nature of work, length of hours and facilities for recreation and attention to denies^ tic and religious duties. \vA he is justified in striving by his own individual efforts and by combination with others, for anything to which he has a just or equitable claim, provided the means he uses are not in themselves unjust and do not inflict disproportionate loss on the general community.
As regards his duties : He is bound to labour for his support whenever he can obtain equitable employment, and has no independent means of maintenance. He is bound to carry out the terms of his agreement with his employer. In striving to better his position he is bound to see t h a t his means are legitimate, and do not inflict disproportionate loss on the public. Especially he is bound to refrain from direct attack on the security and welfare of the general community.
(Catholic Leader, Brisbane)
Malaya Catholic Leader, OCTOBER 17, 1936, Vol 02, No 42, page 1