Friday, 28 November 2014

Church must rethink its approach to world of work

The accusation has been made that the leadership of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is more at home in the boardroom than on the shop floor.  The accusers question that while Cardinal Vincent Nichols contributes to the CBI “great business debate”, citing his own “Blueprint for Business” initative – begun in 2012 – what is the equivalent on the workers side. There is certainly no one from the Bishops Conference of England and Wales addressing the Trade Union Congress, like the late Bishop John Jukes did for so many years.

It is important to remember that it is the workers who produce the profits with their labour, something repeatedly pointed out in Catholic Social Teaching since the ground breaking Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” (1891). The same encyclical made clear the disparity in power indices between worker and employer, requiring the existence of trade unions to balance up the situation. This inequality in the modern age was further developed by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Laborem Excercens – “On Human Work” (1981).

Today, Cardinal Nichols has identified some of the appalling working conditions that exist in this country.  “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. It is right to struggle against these outrageous conditions, just as it is right to seek to work with those who share a desire to develop a healthy ecology of enterprise in our society today,” said the Cardinal, delivering his homily at the mass to mark the 125th anniversary of the Great London Docks strike.  

He has also condemned the zero hours culture that has grown as more and more people are forced into insecure low paid work. “Zero hours contracts offer no reliable hours and therefore no guaranteed income. The practical virtues of planning expenditure, purchasing intelligently and avoiding debt really are difficult in a situation like that,” said Cardinal Nichols.

The Church has also majored on the living wage campaign, playing a leading role along with community organisers like Citizens UK and the trade unions in getting this standard adopted. Many Church organisations have adopted living wage criteria themselves.

The role of the Church in the living wage campaign certainly offers a beacon of good practice for how its relationship with business and labour could be developed. I recall sitting in an old church hall in the East End of London in 2005, with Sir John Bond, then the chair of HSBC, together with the then Bishop of Brentwood Thomas McMahon, representatives from community organisers London Citizens and a number of priests.

The debate went to and fro. HSBC were being asked to sign up to the living wage pledge, whereby they would ensure than no worker was paid less than the living wage for their labour. Sir John was not willing at the time to concede, quoting the amount that the bank gave to charity. However, the seed had been sown. A mixture of meetings and actions in HSBC branches by London Citizens led to the bank signing up as a living wage employer. This type of process was taken with a whole raft of employers, all of whom now form the basis of the growing living wage movement.

The Church in this context was playing a direct role campaigning for social justice with civil society organisations – including trade unions – as well as  providing witness by adopting the living wage in churches, schools and other institutions.

The living wage campaign had arisen from mainly Catholic members of London Citizens, who fed back that their low wages were destroying family life. The low wages of the likes of security guards and cleaners meant they were having to do more than one job to keep their families above the poverty line. This was not good for family life or the common good. The living wage campaign resulted, bringing beneficial results for workers and employers in the longer term.

 It would be good to see this kind of methodology being adopted in initiatives like the Blueprint for Business. The Blueprint seeks to get businesses to sign up to the five principles of honesty, good citizenship, having a purpose that delivers long term sustainable performance, being a responsible employer and guardianship for future generations. They are good aspirations but would most businesses not sign up to these?

Surely more measurable indicators would provide a greater test. So businesses could be required to commit to collective bargaining, trade union recognition, the living wage, closing wage gap between employers and workers, outlawing zero hours contracts and shorter working weeks. The companies should be required to pay their tax in this country. These criteria have resonance with the concept of the common good as defined in Catholic Social Teaching.

Acting CEO of Blueprint Charles Wookey has offered assurances that some exacting standards are being developed to ensure that participating companies are behaving ethically but there is some way to go.

However, the Church’s role in relation to the workplace goes way beyond Blueprint.  We should hear more from the Church about zero hours contracts culture, the growth of bogus self-employment, the growing number of part time workers (most of whom want full time work) and the growth in the number of people in work receiving benefits. None of these recent developments in the workplace are conducive to the common good and family life.

Perhaps it is time that the world of work committee or some equivalent within the Caritas Social Action Network were set up. This would provide a source of expertise for the bishops to draw upon and feel confident when they commented on the world of work.

There should also be moves made to develop a similar dialogue with trade union leaders to that which already exists with business leaders (via Blueprint and the CBI). It is one of the great ironies that so many of the leaders of the trade union movement in the UK received their formation as Catholics. These include TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, GS of PCS Mark Serwotka and GS of the Communication Workers Union Billy Hayes. The unions would welcome an approach from the Church if it were made in good faith, with an intent to treat the workers on an equal footing with employers.

So there is much to be done by the Church in the world of work. It is a critical area, in which most people spent huge amounts of their time. Work defines so many elements of life that it is simply not good enough for Church to ignore the terrain altogether or worse still just talk to one side.
*Article draws on presentation made at the Tablet Table of 20th November - debate with Charles Wookey, CEO of Blueprint and others

- Published - Independent Catholic News - 28/11/2014 

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