Sunday, 5 June 2011

Working for social justice, bringing about the common good

One of the most shocking facts recently revealed by Bishop William Kenny was that if arms spending was stopped for three months the world could be fed. Some US$1.25 trillion a year is spent on war.
Another alarming fact is that by the end of this century the population of the world will have come down to 1 billion due to the ravages caused by climate change. Putting that into context children like my nephew, who is now 11, and those younger will probably be nearing the end of their lives - and be at their most vulnerable - when these horrendous changes take place.
These injustices should really inspire people to get involved. Human beings have been put on the earth by God. They have been entrusted to care for God’s earth and participate in a just world. What is just about so much money being expended on the means to kill each other and destroy the earth, while two thirds of the world live on less than a dollar a day?
As Christians we are not called to go to the Church as a place of sanctuary, allowing the “real” world to go by outside untouched. As followers of Christ, we are called to act to bring transformative kingdom values to the world. This means getting involved.There is real concern that people in the pews are just not engaging anymore, there is a lack of formation in the work of social justice. Research conducted by Catherine Waters Clark has found that just 12 out of 22 diocese have paid J&P resources. CAFOD partly fund 8 out of 12 diocese. The average age of a justice and peace person is 55 to 60. Most dioceses are working on fair-trade, poverty, the environment, homelessness, migrants and asylum seekers.The generation that was inspired by Vatican II really looked beyond the Church walls, saw the challenges and got engaged. As with much else in the Church there is every sign that much of this work has stopped or at best moved to the periphery in those generations that came after Vatican II. This suggests that the structures of formation have declined.The society ofcourse in which we live has changed beyond all recognition also since the Vatican Council of the 1960s. The last 30 years has seen the domination of the neo-liberal market model of development. This is an extreme form of capitalism that leads to hero worship of those who feature on the rich list but derision for the single mother struggling to get by on the sink estate. It is a society that when crisis hits seeks to pass the burden of debt via cuts onto the poorest and most vulnerable in society, rather than increasing the taxes on the richest.For those involved in social justice – which by definition should be all Catholics – many of these changes in the world are dispiriting but Catholic Social Teaching says we have to press on.There is a new awareness now arising out of the Pope’s visit and the ongoing domestic political situation of the need to get involved in the work for social justice. The Caritas Social Action Network has organised a series of conferences bringing together different individuals and agencies involved in the work of social justice. It is conducting a mapping exercise to find out what is going on across the country. The next stage of this process should involve finding out exactly what is happening at grass roots parish and schools level in terms of social justice work.The work of justice and peace in particular has long been underfunded, with those involved often feeling like pariahs in their own parish and beyond. But in reality these people are the prophetic voice of the Church, questioning the injustice of the arms trade, the challenges of climate change and inequity of the economic system. They are not a sect or wing of the Church but are essentially doing what all should be doing.It is though not all bad news. As Rosemary Read, the president of the National Council of Lay Associations rencently pointed out: apartheid is no more, there is peace in Ireland, the fair trade movement has taken off and become mainstream and much international debt has been cancelled. There have been huge achievements by a relatively small group of people. Imagine what could happen if everyone got involved – there could be genuine transformation of the world for kingdom values.The Church though needs to step up to the mark. There must be proper resourcing provided for justice and peace, not marginalising the work by restricting funding. The processes for formation need to be re-established and they must be bottom up, not top down. Our Church leaders must be more prepared to speak out on matters of justice not just keep a safe silence. Silence often equates with approval for the whole edifice of injustice outlined at the start. We live in an unjust world and it is high time that we as Church began playing a far more active role in bringing about its transformation for the common good

Land reform not nuclear power needed to combat climate change

It was good news for the future of the planet to learn that Germany will be phasing out all nuclear power installations over the next 10 years.The Germans response to the horror that recently unveiled in Japan at the Fukishama nuclear plant following the earthquake was the appropriate one. People took to the streets in protest at the dangers posed by nuclear power. The feelings of people against nuclear power were also reflected in the recent elections in Germany. All in all the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel were left in no doubt as to what course of action they should take over future energy provision. As a result, the German government has taken a bold step to replace the 23 per cent of nuclear provision with renewable energy sources.So what has happened in this country, well hardly a whimper of dissent, certainly no street protests of German proportions. While the German people recognised the danger and acted appropriately, the British continued to dwell in their insular comfort zone, complaining about Europe. Despite the evidence of devastation from Japan, the Coalition Government is committed to continue with the ill thought out programme of new nuclear power stations laid down by the last administration.Indeed, not only was there no protest over the dangers of nuclear power but previous opponents of the industry like environmentalist and writer George Monbiot declared his conversion to this form of energy as a result of what he saw in Japan.There has been a narrative developed in the public discourse here that equates combatting climate change with the need to adopt nuclear power. The cost of this misconception in human and environmental terms in the form of a crisis like Fukishama should be clear enough for all to see. The irony of using such a destructive technology as nuclear power to allegedly save the planet must surely be lost on no one.

It is extraordinary that people with children are not concerned about these issues. It is the future of the planet that is at stake and it will be the children of today who pay the price in the world of tomorrow. The effects of climate change will hit the present generation of youngsters hardest and the nuclear option is only likely to add to the appalling legacy that that today's adults are leaving to their children.It is high time that the threat of climate chage was taken seriously. Nuclear energy is no solution, as Japan proves it is dangerous and costly. What is required is to get back to a much simpler way of living. Local communities need to be rebuilt around their energy needs and locally produced goods. This will mean getting back to the land. In order for this to happen one vital prerequisite is land reform. A recent study found that if all the land in the world were divided equally amongst the present population then everyone could have four acres. This would be more than enough to sustainably support individuals and families. However, in reality large swathes of the world are owned by a small number of individuals. One of the largest landowners in the world is our own Queen. If there is truly to be land reform along the lines needed for people to get back to a more agrarian and less environmentally destructive way of life then there will have to be a land redistribution.But before any of this can happen there needs to be a recognition that the present economic system is not working, indeed market capitalism of the type being practiced now is not only responsible for destroying the planet but also for disempowering the very people who could bring about the change. Human beings have changed from being citizens to consumers, shorn of the power to make change outside of anything beyond a transactional notion.People need to get back democratic power. The way in which the Germans have rejected the nuclear industry proves that democracy is stronger in some countries than others. But if the world is to move to a more sustainable way of living, involving getting back to the land and production at a local level, then the democratic leavers need to be restored uiniversally. Only then can developments like the land reform needed to get back to a truly localised form of agrarian production be accomplished.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Church has to live up to living wage promise

The concept of the living wage has really taken off in London with campaigners claiming that more £70 million has been put into the pockets of the poorest people over the past 10 years.
Among the highlights have been getting the London Mayor to adopt the idea for staff within his remit and setting a guiding level for the living wage each year. The present mayor Boris Johnson recently set the living wage level at £8.30 an hour for the next year.
Another big success was getting the organisers of the 2012 Olympics to make the site a living wage area. This saw games organiser Locog confirm that the £700 million of contracts would be awarded only to companies agreeing to pay the living wage.
Others signing up to the living wage include HSBC, Barclays, Standard Chartered and KPMG from the private sector. In the public sector there were four hospital trusts and local authorities like Tower Hamlets, Islington, Camden, Greenwich, Ealing, Waltham Forest, Hackney, Hounslow and Lewisham signing up. Some 12 universities, two museums and four central government contracts have become living wage employers. The idea is now spreading out beyond the capital to Oxford, Norwich, Preston and Scotland.
There has been political backing with Prime Minister David Cameron describing the living wage as “an idea whose time has come.” Labour leader Ed Miliband has also supported the idea.
Now the living wage campaign has set itself wider targets, seeking to get Tesco to use some of its £3.8 billion profits to pay all its 280,000 staff the living wage. At present the groceries giant pays its cleaners and other lowest paid people the minimum wage. The living wage campaign wants the company to pay the £8.30 living wage in the capital and £7.20 outside.
The idea of a living wage came from America but the motivation here came at community level where due to poverty pay people were having to do two and three jobs a week to try and keep their families above the poverty line. As Deborah Litman, a national officer at Unison and vice-chair of the London Living wage campaign pointed out “two thirds of low income households have someone in work.”
As a result the community organising group London Citizens began the campaign for a living wage. Research was commissioned from Queen Mary University to find what the level of wages should be for people to be able to live above the poverty line in London. The initial rate was set in 2003 at £6.30 an hour.
Low pay does not make sense for workers, employers or society as a whole. Employers who have taken on the living wage report better motivated staff, less turnover and absenteeism. It is also good news for the tax payer as previously companies paying low wages have effectively been subsidised by the payment of tax credits to bring people up to a minimum standard of living.
The Churches have played a central role in the living wage campaign. It was endorsed in its early days by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor when he was Archbishop of Westminster. The present Archbishop Vincent Nichols has continued support for the living wage campaign. Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood has been a keen backer of the campaign for the past 10 years. He recently drew comparison with the days of Cardinal Manning and the 1889 dock strike when the Cardinal said that "a worker’s wage should be sufficient to keep his wife and children, to provide them with decent housing and a healthy diet and to educate them." Southwark Diocese too has backed the campaign.
Catholic churches and parishes make up around 45 per cent of the membership of the community organisers London Citizens that have pushed the living wage campaign. The big question though is are the Churches practicing what the preach?
The Million Minutes organisation have set it as a criteria for any organisation they give money to that they must be paying the living wage to all workers. Danny Curtin, the founder of the Million Minutes initiative to raise funds via a mass sponsored silence for youth based projects has his doubts. "It is very very sad that there is any diocese or church organisation that is not paying or making the living wage a priority. And I know there are different diocese not paying the living wage," said Mr Curtin. "If the Church is supporting the living wage campaigns it should be leading by example. We should be treating employees well with dignity in the workplace."
In 2002, Church Action on Poverty conducted some research in Greater Manchester across 190 churches from the Catholic, Anglican, United Reformed Church, Baptist and Methodists. They found that of 850 people employed by the Churches, two out of three were paid less than the living wage (set at £5.80 for outside London at that time). In another sample of Church organisations it was found that of 145 people employed by 21 organisations, 57 per cent were not receiving a living wage. Among 20 church schools some 7,850 employees were being paid less than the living wage out of 20,000 low paid employees in schools in the Greater Manchester area
“When Church Action on Poverty surveyed the pay of church employees in Manchester, we found that nearly 2 in 3 church employees and about half of Christian organisation employees were paid less than a living wage. This very disappointing situation has not changed much on the ground since then, despite some very promising commitments by some of the churches on a national level,” said Niall Cooper, director of CAP. “It is essential that the churches lead the way in paying a living wage. Not just because it reflects gospel values, but because it will enable them to speak out prophetically and clearly when other employers exploit and degrade vulnerable people. We will continue pressing the churches on this issue.”
Among the diocese supporting the living wage, Westminster claim “the overwhelming majority of staff directly employed.. are paid at or above the London Living Wage".
"The pay of a small number of staff falls below this level. This principally reflects the limited financial resources of some of our parishes. Adopting the London Living Wage as a minimum pay level has been considered by the diocese and discussions on how this can be achieved will continue,” said a spokesperson for the Westminster diocese.
A spokesperson for the Brentwood diocese said: "The living wage has been put into effect in the diocesan offices at Cathedral House and the Trustees of the Diocese of Brentwood are in the final stages of agreeing a policy to recommend the payment of the living wage for all those employed by parishes around the diocese.”
Southwark Diocese failed to respond.

A look at the how the Methodist Church has gone about implementing the living wage offers an interesting lesson on how important it is to follow through on commitments.
The Methodist conference first declared in 2003 that “pay and benefits should be set in relation to need. Four years later, it declared that “all Methodist employees should be paid the living wage.” However, this did not happen, the Methodists found that few knew about the ruling outside of those directly involved in employment relations. Anomalies became apparent with two people sitting next to each other doing similar work but both being paid a different living wage. Other various comments came forward like staff did not want a pay rise or “we don’t get the living wage” from some clergy.
Something had to be done so in 2010 the conference decreed that “there should be a workable plan for implementation on the basis of costs.” The plan put in place was implemented by the Joint Public Issues team working for the Methodists, Baptists and United Reformed Church. Implementation meant all those in the Methodist Church who could afford to pay the living wage were told to do so. If there were genuine reasons in a local situation why not then they would have five years to implement with help from the Joint Public Issues team that would help with business plans and such like.
Dr Paul Morrison, a policy advisor with the Joint Public Issues team working for the Methodists, Baptists and United Reformed Church, recommends education and campaign work on the living wage both inside and outside the church. “A Church paying the living wage should be pleased about it,” said Dr Morrison. “Church members should ask employers do they pay all staff the living wage.”
So what the Methodist Church experience teaches is that it is no good organisations just committing to the living wage, there has to be an active audit style process undertaken to ensure that the various parts of the organisation are complying with the directive.
There is still a long way to go with CAP particularly keen that the Catholic and Anglican churches start stepping up to the mark when it comes to paying the living wage. For the moment it would seem many of the churches are talking the talk but not walking the walk on the living wage.