Viewpoint: Time for Church to stand up for worker's rights again

The latest attempt by the Coalition Government to get everyone else to pay for the deficit caused by the bankers seems to be manifesting itself in an attack on the working conditions of ordinary people.

There has already been the cutting of the jobs, wages and pensions of those working in the public sector. Other moves now see rules for employment tribunals being changed so that employees have to be work for two years rather than the present one before they have right of recourse. They will also have to pay a fee. This is intended to dissuade people from going to tribunal, thereby promoting the ability of an employer to make ever greater profits by practicing injustice in the workplace.

Another major change in favour of employers has been the switching in April of the indexation of increases in benefits, tax credits and public service pensions from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI will always be lower as it does not include elements like morgage interest payments and council tax. This will cost workers dearly while presenting billions in savings for companies. This will be especially true in the area of pensions.

Then there is talk of cutting health and safety laws. Whilst the tabloid press regularly drag out the most ludicrous example of health and safety practices that can be found in order to attack the whole concept of safety at work, there are people dying due to employer negligence. An average of 220 people have died each year at work for the past five years. This total figure though came down to 152 for 2009/10, no doubt due to a stronger safety culture. The industries with the worst records are construction (42 in 2009/10), services (41) and agriculture (38). Health and Safety laws are there to protect people's lives in many cases, not some fluffy soft option to make the employers lot more difficult.

The attitude to health and safety seems symptomatic of the Coalition Government’s attitude to regulation generally. Note, environment minister Chris Huhne recently declaring that no new regulations will be brought in without an old regulation going out. There are well founded reasons for regulations, as the banking sector showed all too well. It was so called ‘light touch’ regulation that enabled the banking crisis to happen.

Then there is talk of strengthening laws to make striking more difficult, a flashback here to the early Thatcherite days of the 1980s when the law was used as a means to outlaw much industrial action.

In Ireland, they have cut the level of the minimum wage to help business become more competitive. Surely, it can only be a matter of time before such a move comes to this country.

What all of these moves betray is the latest restructuring of the capitalist system in favour of the employer and against the worker. In specific terms it proves that despite the banking crisis the fundamentalist neo-liberal market system continues to dominate.
The banking crisis may have brought the whole system to the brink of collapse but that’s all a long time ago now - the bankers continue to draw huge bonuses whilst everyone else pays the price. Basically the wheels have been put back on the busted neo-liberal market wagon, so that it can trundle on to the next great crisis destroying more lives along the way.

The Church has a key role to play here in articulating the need to act for the common good. The Church has always spelt the importance of the dignity of work from Pope Leo XIII's first great encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) to Pope John Paul II's encyclical Laborem Exercens (1981) with its insistence that the interests of labour must always take precedence over capital. It has consistently defended the right of individuals to organise in trade unions in order to counter the overbearing weight of capital. The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church states that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life.”

Pope John Paul II saw the need to protect the likes of agency workers long before it became a tenet of European law. Incidentally, the law to give agency workers the same rights as permanent employees is another now being delayed in implementation by the Coalition Government because it is believed such measures make life more difficult for capital.

It is not right that working people should be so blatantly forced to take the burden for others greed. The Church should be speaking out on the rights of trade unions, the importance of health and safety as well as other terms and conditions of work. The Church has backed the call for a living wage and needs to continue to defend this position. It is vital at this juncture that the Church does speak out on these matters because there are precious few others doing so. One body is the Trades Union Congress, which has organised a march of protest on 26 March in London.

If we are all in this together then surely capital has to take accepting some of the pain, instead of offsetting all against the workers. The common good demands no less.
* The TUC march begins at 11 am on 26 March on the Embankment
CTS Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum available from CTS

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