Today the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. On this day in 1991 St. John Paul II issued the encyclical Centissimus Annus, marking the 100th anniversary of the landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum.
The teaching of the church on workers goes far beyond simply the pragmatic issues like just wages and the right of workers to form unions. In the opening of his encyclical St. John Paul looks at how we view the worker.
A new form of property had appeared — capital; and a new form of labour — labour for wages, characterized by high rates of production which lacked due regard for sex, age or family situation, and were determined solely by efficiency, with a view to increasing profits.
In this way labour became a commodity to be freely bought and sold on the market, its price determined by the law of supply and demand, without taking into account the bare minimum required for the support of the individual and his family.
In our own culture we have gone from talking about personnel to human resources. You may think this is a small thing but it is not. What is a resource?
Resource is defined (merriam webster) as:
—something that a country has and can use to increase its wealth
—a supply of something (such as money) that someone has and can use when it is needed
We have gone from persons to something to be used.
As St. John Paul reiterated the human being must be the end not a means. Yes, "society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings." But he goes beyond the wages to look at the working conditions. "'humane' working hours and adequate free-time need to be guaranteed, as well as the right to express one's own personality at the work-place without suffering any affront to one's conscience or personal dignity." We cannot simply be cogs in the machine.
We all like being able to buy goods at the cheapest possible price. But today's feast calls us to pause and take a serious look at the human beings who produce every item we purchase every day. The dignity of the human person must remain our number one priority. Profit is good and we have a right to own businesses and make a profit, but it is not an unlimited right.
Let us pray for those people today who are forced to work in situations that do not respect their fundamental human dignity.