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Work is the key to building a just society1.  This is why teachings about work and the rights and duties of workers and employers have been central to the teaching of the Church about social justice.


Work is important for many reasons.  It is our right and our vocation, it is a way in which we express ourselves and grow as persons.  It is a way in which we come into relationship with others and contribute to the common good.  And it is how most of us have access to the necessities of life2.

Many Australians who are seeking secure and adequately paid employment are unable to find it.  Social inequality is growing and even some of those who have employment are experiencing poverty.

Unemployment is a serious social evil.  It deprives people of the income that they need to live, it wounds their spirits, it increases dependency on Government, and it deprives people of self esteem and the opportunity to contribute to society and to their own well-being.

Unemployment affects all sectors of Australian society, but it affects some groups in specific or particularly acute ways e.g. some young people's transition to independent adulthood is hampered by the lack of secure, adequately paid employment.

Unemployment affects people who are employed.  In conditions of high unemployment it is difficult for workers to bargain effectively with employers for fair wages and conditions.

According to ABS figures, 7.4% of Australians were unemployed in March 1999.  This figure included 40,700 young men between the ages of 15 and 19 and 28,500 young women in the same age group who were unable to find full time work3.

Governments, and a number of commentators, over the past decade have preached acceptance of continuing high levels of unemployment as ‘inevitable?.  Programs for unemployed people have taken on an increasingly punitive nature emphasizing the obligations of the unemployed rather than those of the community at large.  Current employment programs appear to place the blame for unemployment on the personal qualities of unemployed people rather than the structure of the economy and the functioning of the labour market.

Roles of workers, employers & governments

Workers, unemployed people, employers and Governments all have different roles to play in the world of work.  Their rights and duties are interconnected, and all have a part to play in the elimination of the scourge of unemployment and in the resolution of industrial disputes.

Rights & duties of workers

The Church teaches that we have a right and a duty to work, and that workers have a right to a just wage, safe conditions of work and adequate time for rest, recreation, family life and religious observance4.  Workers have a right to form and to join, or not to join, trade unions.  Since 1891 the Church has clearly stated that collective action is needed to give most workers some hope of bargaining with employers on an equal footing5. Workers have the right to strike, but should only do so as a last resort in grave circumstances.

Workers have a duty to provide a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, and to respect the person and property of their employer.  They should comply with all reasonable instructions6.

Rights & duties of employers

Employers have a right to a fair day’s work from their workers in return for a fair day’s pay.  They have a right to expect that their reasonable instructions are complied with and that their persons and property be respected.

Employers have a duty to provide their workers with a just wage and a safe and healthy workplace.  They must treat workers with respect and dignity and not to squeeze wages of the poor for the sake of profits7.

The role of governments & the ‘indirect employer?

Workers and employers are influenced by the broader social and economic structures that shape the availability of employment opportunities and the organization of work. John Paul II uses the term ‘indirect employer? to refer to such structures and institutions8.  They too share in responsibility for justice in the world of work.

The role of government is to assist, support and coordinate the efforts of individuals, families and groups in society to ensure that each of them is oriented to the good of all.  It should not take away from them their own proper roles9.

Governments must protect, foster and promote the human rights of all people and all groups.  Such rights are civil and political as well as economic, cultural and social.

Governments must act not only in the interests of particular groups, but for the good of all10. They must intervene in social and economic life to establish conditions that help each person and each group to achieve their potential as freely and fully as possible.  This includes providing an appropriate legal framework for the settlement of industrial disputes which harmonizes the rights of workers, employers, and of the whole community.  It includes intervening in the functioning of the economy if necessary to promote adequate employment opportunities for all seeking paid work.

Unemployed people have a right to be treated with respect, and to be heard on those matters that most immediately affect them.

The most immediate need of unemployed people is for adequate income support.  They have a right to such support because every member of the community has a right to an appropriate share in the benefits of society.  Income support alone is not a sufficient response to the problem of unemployment because the income-generating function of work is not its only or its most important aspect.

Unemployment is an evil because it demeans the human person.  If the economy is to serve people, then the elimination of unemployment must be a high priority target for active policy.  The needs of those who have suffered the most, such as long term unemployed people, should be specifically targeted.

Since work is a right, a duty and a vocation, full employment should be a high priority policy objective.  The only acceptable rate of unemployment is that associated with the frictional unemployment that happens as people move from one job to another.  Everyone's contribution to the community is needed - there should be no 'surplus labour'.

It is not sufficient to hope that economic growth might eventually solve the problem of unemployment.  It must be tackled directly.

Catholic thinking doesn't support an 'end of work' scenario.  It does support reclaiming a broader understanding of what work is.

Work is a broader concept than employment.  We must learn again to truly value non-market work.  It is not payment that makes work valuable.  Payment is only one reason that people want to work.  None the less, appropriate ways of ensuring adequate independent access to income for those who do not do work in a market context are needed.  A more integrated approach to welfare and wages policies could be explored.

People are more important than things or technology.  Labour should not be treated as a commodity, as one more input to the production process, but rather as something that people do. Care must be taken that efforts to promote labour force 'flexibility' do not translate into openings for the exploitation of the least powerful workers and polarization in a dual labour market.

Unemployment is not a private problem, but rather a concern for the whole community.  Everyone has both the right and the obligation to participate in the shaping of public policy.  Unemployed people, workers organizations, employers, governments and community groups must all work together to eliminate the curse of unemployment.

Employment policy involves a reciprocal or mutual obligation between the citizen and the government, but government may invoke obligation on the part of the unemployed person only if government has fulfilled its part of the bargain by ensuring opportunities for meaningful employment.

End Notes

  1. John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, n 3.
  2. Cornish, S.J., Work: A Christian Vision, in Smyth, P., (Ed) The Employment White Paper: A New Social Charter? (Melbourne Seminar), Uniya Discussion Papers No 3, January 1994.
  3. Figures quoted from ABS Catalogue No. 6202.0 11.30 am 8 April 1999, at www.abs.gov.au
  4. Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, n 16.
  5. Rerum Novarum, n 34, 36 - 44.
  6. Rerum Novarum, n 16.
  7. Rerum Novarum, n 17.
  8. Laborem Exercens, n 17.
  9. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n 1905 - 1912.
  10. Catechism, n 1908.

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