We’re living in a society where our pay isn’t always based on the true value of our work. For example, in my PhD program, researchers earned a salary far below the median income in our city, despite often spending upwards of 60 hours per week in the lab. I earned magnitudes more in tips while waiting 2-3 tables at a time in a farm-to-table restaurant, compared to juggling 5-6 concurrent tables at a diner chain in my rural hometown. These examples are so unsurprising and expected that they might seem fair - but upon further reflection, we discover that they aren’t.
The Catholic Church has a lot to say about workers’ rights - not just about the need for equal pay for men and women, but also about what a fair wage looks like in general. When I learned about the Church’s teachings on workers’ rights, it challenged my beliefs on what constitutes a fair wage. Here’s what I learned:
Workers’ rights stem from human rights
Workers are human and human beings have natural rights, including the right to live. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote that “each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live.” While we exercise this right through our work, it is our dignity as human beings that gives us a share of the fruits of the earth. This is a simple fact of being human; I don’t have a greater claim on life or its spoils than any of you reading this do.
In other words, your right to a just wage comes from the fact that you are a human person. Period.
In our society, salary is typically determined by the job. Often we have an impulse to measure the material value of our labor. For example, we all know that computer science engineers typically make more than kindergarten teachers. However, Pope St. John Paul II explained in great detail that work has dignity because the worker is a human being: “The basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.”
The person who does the work is more valuable than the work itself
The thought of paying workers a wage that reflects their humanity, regardless of their productivity, can be difficult to accept because it seems like a punishment to the “hard” worker (as in the parable of the laborers of the vineyard). Plus, let’s face it: Paying a just wage costs the employer more.
However, if the dignity of the worker is more valuable than the work itself, then maybe we can accept that justice looks differently than we might expect.
What does it mean to say that someone has “earned” their pay? Does it mean that they produced enough goods to justify their salary? Or that they are claiming a share of the earth that rightfully belongs to them?
I found, and still find, this principle to be challenging. In my work and educational experience, I valued work first for its own sake, and I found myself guilty of the so-called “error of economism, that of considering human labour solely according to its economic purpose.”
A just wage should support a human life
Finally, what exactly constitutes a fair wage must be discussed. Most likely, there are a variety of ways to achieve this, but the point is that a just wage reflects the worker’s dignity. Pope St. John Paul II offers some guiding insights on determining a just wage: “Just remuneration for the work of an adult who is responsible for a family means remuneration [for] properly maintaining a family and for providing security for its future,” and, “medical assistance should be easily available for workers … it should be cheap or even free of charge. Another sector [is] the right to rest … comprising at least Sunday, and also a longer period of rest.”
These insights steer us away from focusing only on the economic value of a particular job, and towards considering the human being who does the work - as well as their medical needs and any other human beings they support.
Moving towards equity for all
I invite you to reflect on what wage-earning would look like if it were informed by these principles. To me, it seems clear that if wages were decided primarily based on the dignity of the worker, rather than on the work produced, then full-time work would at a minimum allow someone to support a family.
So, what can we do to move in this direction? As an employer or a manager, you can advocate for the people at your organization to earn a just wage. And as an employee, you can stand your ground as you summon the courage to negotiate your pay.
A just wage is important because the payee is a human person with dignity. If debate should arise, let’s keep coming back to this point.