Friday, 17 October 2014

Dignity or slavery-does work still work for the common good

The film, Two days, One night, starring Marion Cotillard as Belgium factory worker Sandra will have struck a chord with many workers today.

Sandra is told she will be made redundant unless she can persuade her fellow workers to give up their bonuses. She goes one to one seeking to persuade the different individuals of her cause. In the end she succeeds in converting half the workforce to her cause. This is not enough but the boss is impressed at her fortitude and says she can have a job when one of the other workers is released. She refuses, knowing that it will be one of those who voted to support her who will be let go.

The lesson of the film being the need to show solidarity, organise collectively and work for the common good.

The film is so timely at a moment of unprecedented insecurity in the workplace. The present much lauded economic recovery has in the main been prefaced on forcing more people into low paid insecure work. This is most clearly evidenced with the movement of more than one million workers, since 2010, from the more secure better paid employment of the public sector to the lower paid insecure work of the private sector.

There are now 1.4 million people on zero hour contracts, with two in every five of the new jobs created over recent years being self employed.

Some 4.5 million are classified as self employed. The  official figures published by Parliament found that the average annual income from self-employment is less than £10,000 for women - in case anyone should think that self employment is the exclusive status of aspiring entrepreneurs, the number of whom have incidentally declined by 52,000 over the four year period (2010 to 2014).  

Then there has been the growth in part time workers, who now account for 8 million out of the 30 million workforce. They account for half of the jobs created between 2010 and 2012. And it is not a life style choice or a matter of work life balance, most of those on part time jobs wanted full time employment but they had to take what was on offer.

At the same time real weekly wages overall have fallen by 8% since 2008, equivalent to a fall in annual earnings of about £2,000 for a typical worker in Britain.

In work poverty has also been on the increase with a growing amount of the benefits budget going to those in rather than out of work. An example is housing benefit, which has gone up by 59% since 2010.

The number of housing benefit claimants in work rose from 650,561 in May 2010 to 1.03 million by the end of last year.

The House of Commons Library calculated the amount spent on in-work housing benefit will rise from £3.4 billion in the 2010-11 financial year to £5.1 billion in 2014-15, making a total of £21.9 billion over the five-year parliament ending at next year’s election

The increase has been due to rents going up whilst wages have fallen or remained static. This situation is a good example of welfare for the rich, with landlords profiting out of the benefits budget whilst the poor struggle, less able to pay, but still getting the blame for their own poverty.

Just over half of the 13 million people in poverty - surviving on less than 60% of the national median (middle) income - were from working families.

This whole situation is very difficult to understand, set as it has been against a background of increasing wealth, evidenced by the presence of more than 100 billionaires (up by 12 over the past year). The wealth created though seems to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

What has been surprising amid this worsening situation for life in the workplace has been the lack of any significant comment from Church leaders in the UK. The Catholic Church hierarchy in particular seem totally wedded to business.  

Cardinal Vincent Nichols contributed recently to the CBI’s “great business debate” quoting his “blueprint for business” initiative that has called together business leaders for a number of conferences to discuss ethics.

The opposition to trade unions and organised labour amongst the hierarchy is palpable. It was notable that even in delivering his homily for the recent 125th celebration of the Great Dock Strike Cardinal Nichols managed to avoid mentioning trade unions in a contemporary context at all.

So the Cardinal could declare: “We know that working conditions exist today, in this city, which are not far from effective slavery, as well as the presence of extensive de facto slavery too. “

His answer though seems to be to lecture business about ethics seemingly in the belief that one day this will result in business leaders deciding it’s time to be nice to the workers – something not born out by history.

Yet the teachings of the Church are very clear on the world of work. 'If the hours of labour resulting from the unregulated sale of a man's strength and skill shall lead to the destruction of domestic life, to the neglect of children, to turning wives and mothers into living machines, and of fathers and husbands into - what shall I say, creatures of burden? - I will not use any other word - who rise before the sun and come back when it is set, seared and able only to take food and to lie down to rest; the domestic life of man exists no longer, and we dare not go on in this path,' said Cardinal Henry Manning  in 1874.

Then came the famous encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) indicating that the Church  recognised the inequality of the lone worker with just his or her labour to sell versus the overwhelming power of the employer or owner of the means of production. In order to even out this inequality the existence of trade unions was vindicated.

More recently Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Excercens – “On Human Work” (1981), asserted that the interests of labour must always take precedent over those of capital.

The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church states that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life.”

Indeed, Pope John Paul II seemed to suggest the scope and role of unions’ activity needed to expand to meet the demands of the new globalised workplace. “Today unions are called to act in new ways, widening the scope of their activity of solidarity so that protection is afforded not only to the traditional categories of workers, but also to workers with non-standard or limited-time contracts, employees whose jobs are threatened by business mergers that occur with ever increasing frequency, even at international level: to those who do not have a job, to immigrants, seasonal workers and those who, because they have not had professional updating, have been dismissed from the labour market and cannot be readmitted without proper training.” Clearly, a Pope ahead of his time.

It is a great irony that so many of the country’s trade unions are led by individuals who received their early social justice formation in the Catholic Church. General Secretary (GS) of the TUC Frances O’Grady, GS of the Communication Workers Union Billy Hayes and GS of PCS Mark Serwotka are just three of those brought up as Catholics. Yet how much has the Church done to engage with unions and those who represent working people? It seems far too busy engaging with those who strut around the board rooms

The main effort of the Church in the UK regarding the workplace, aside of working with the likes of the CBI, has been to support the concept of a living wage. The idea of a minimum wage that will keep people above the poverty line, this has been set at £8.80 in London and £7.65 in the rest of the country. The Church has supported this idea that was first put forward by community organising groups like London Citizens and the trade unions. But much more is needed from the Church.

It is high time that the Church in this country recognised that the mass of its membership are caught up in this unjust and unequal distribution of wages. A cursory examination of the concept of the common good should result in some reflection on the present situation whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There needs to be radical change in order that wealth is redistributed on a more just and equitable basis. Trade unions have traditionally been an institution in society that helps ensure a more equal distribution of wealth. So some Church support (recognition) of their role would be welcome. More though needs to be done to connect what is going on in the economy today with the social teachings of the Church and the dignity of the human person, simply talking to the rich and powerful really won’t do.
* Based on a talk to be given at the Salford Justice and Peace Assembly on 18/10/2014
published Independent Catholic News

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