A common justification for not paying workers a living wage goes something like this:  "If I didn’t hire these people, they would be unemployed.  It is better for them to have something, even if it is not an ideal wage, than to have nothing at all."

   I didn’t see any treatment of the "something is better than nothing" argument in the Catechism; the Church is emphatic about the need to pay workers a living wage.      The Catechism does list several factors that employers must take into account when setting wages, and one of those is the "state of the business" (CCC 2434). 

    There are situations in which the state of the business might not allow employers to pay a living wage.  Imagine, for example, if our family farm (previous post) were to suffer a dust bowl or a depression.  The farm operates at a loss; even the owners are living on less than they need.  Certainly in that scenario, the owners are not guilty of any injustice if they are unable to pay their workers a living wage — they cannot pay themselves a living wage!    

    But one cannot use the "state of the business" clause to justify paying inadequate wages under "business as usual" conditions.  When the farm recovers from this temporary calamity, or the various workers find some other more profitable line of work, it is understood that the return to normalcy includes all workers earning a living wage.
 
    This is a radical way of thinking for corporate America (and corporate elsewhere), where the market price is considered the acceptable wage under all conditions.  There are many firms today which are reporting profits to shareholders, and paying sizable salaries to management, but which are not paying all workers a living wage. 

    The church tells us this is not acceptable.  To say that a company which acts this way is  "building the economies of the developing world" would be like saying that a parent who indulges himself while feeding his child concentration-camp rations is "helping his child grow".

    I think the Church is asking us to do something that is both radically big and very very small. 

    To pay a living wage, even if that wage is higher than the going market rate, is a big change.  It costs.  It means a company cannot rely on the investment capital of those whose idea of  "normal"  is to pay workers as little as possible in order to maximize profits, no matter how little those wages are.  It likely means owners and managers must sacrifice some of their own salary in order to ensure all workers can earn a living.

    On the other hand, making sure your workers can have food and shelter and clothing —  how much is that too ask?  Would you consider it unreasonable to ask your own employer for enough of a salary to provide for your basic needs? The moral mandate of the living wage boils down to common decency.

    Under normal business conditions, the "something is better than nothing" argument is deceitful and cruel.  It is an excuse to take advantage of other people’s vulnerability and poor bargaining power, in order to grow rich at their expense.  Is it hard to pay a living wage?  In a time and a place when the wider culture says it is normal not to pay one, yes, it is hard to go against that practice.   But it isn’t meant to be.  The living wage ought to be business-as-usual.

   

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