Southwestern Indiana's Catholic Community Newspaper

Viewing Labor Through The Lens Of Catholic Social Teaching


Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer – and thank goodness the day itself iss actually one of rest, not labor.  Rightfully so, we celebrate the efforts of those who work in our communities, in industries from auto manufacturing to hospitality, banking to retail, technology to construction.

Unfortunately, in the communities of southwest Indiana many jobs remain unfilled.  Local work-force-development experts estimate that well over 500, and possibly 1,000, jobs along the Highway 41 corridor from the north side of Evansville to Princeton remain open.  The Highway 231 corridor from Dale through Jasper is experiencing a similar dearth of qualified workers, perhaps with a lower number but still significant for population size.  Manufacturing firms in other diocesan communities report similar struggles with identifying, hiring and retaining employees.

If there are so many jobs available, why are there individuals in our community who are not working?  Why can potential workers not find suitable employment?  The barriers to working are many; some systemic to the community, some attributable to employer practices and some personal to the individual. Many of the barriers could be removed if communities, employers and individual workers understood and followed the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching.

While all of the seven tenets of Catholic Social Teaching apply to the world of work, some may apply more directly than others.  These include the tenets of the dignity of work, rights of workers, and rights and responsibilities.

First, there is human dignity in working and being able to respond to our baptismal call of vocation.  Often, a person’s job is not just ‘work’ but rises to the level of vocation. We often speak of our work as being “in our soul” or “defining who I am.”  For others work is required to fulfill one’s vocational call. This might be true for a couple for whom family life is the primary vocation.  Work allows individuals to earn money so that they may bear, feed, clothe, house and educate children.  

Many companies are substituting technology for human work.  While this makes for an efficient, and many claim effective, delivery of goods and services, its use may not be most just.  A community must have paid work available for those who because of limited cognitive or physical ability require simple, routine and structured work.  To only offer jobs that require a college education, strong physical competencies, or schedules unconducive to family and community life may inhibit community growth and family well-being.  A just society offers a variety of economic opportunities for individuals to fulfill their vocation by and through working.   

Several recent studies have revealed that many employers do not pay a “living wage” or “sustainable wage.”  A self-sufficient wage offers pay and benefits that allow a full-time working person or couple to pay for childcare, housing, transportation, health care and food costs in the relevant local community.  Of course, this measure is two-sided:    are the systems in the community – housing, transportation, health and childcare – too expensive or unavailable for an acceptable quality of life, or are wages so low that basic needs cannot be met?  Is transportation available for individuals to secure good employment?  Are housing units insulated well enough to keep utility costs reasonable?  

Another tenet of CST suggests that individuals as employees have rights and responsibilities.  Employers should ensure that work is offered in a dignified setting (e.g. clean, safe and free from harassment).  Employees are expected to meet reasonable work expectations such as being drug and alcohol free, arriving on time and giving complete focus to the job at hand while on work time.

One of the unspoken-but-prevalent inhibitors to work in southern Indiana is the significant level of drug use.  An informal, small survey of employers and temporary work agencies revealed that almost 50% of applicants for the many jobs cannot pass a drug test, so are not considered for employment.   Individual workers need to commit to being drug free so that they can take advantage of fair-paying jobs that also include benefits.

The supply and demand of labor is a topic that occupies the thoughts and efforts of policymakers, employers and community leaders, and cannot be addressed in a simple article.  However, if all labor-force participants – employees and employers – viewed the issues through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching, great strides might be made in addressing the issues of poverty.