(This is the second part of the series “A Formidable Theology of Human Work”
Read the first part here: A formidable theology on human work: On the essence of labor)
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, labor refers to “any valuable service rendered by a human agent in the production of wealth, other than accumulating and providing capital or assuming the risks that are a normal part of business undertakings.”
It is implicit in this definition that the risk of success or failure as well as the outcomes of gains or losses is solely borne by the employing organization and its owners of capital, and is not passed on or shared with those whom it employs for its operations.
Labor may also refer to the application of physical energy, skills or knowledge and self-direction in the work of production. It consumes a part, and to most people, a significant part of the years of human life. Labor is performed not as an end in itself, but for a claim to a share in the aggregate product of the industry of the community.
How much this share should be to an individual worker in view of its non-involvement in the risks of production, has been the major subject of the unresolved contemporary debate between the primary risk-holders, the owners of capital; and the enablers of production, the workers.
This conflicting point of contention on risk-sharing is connected to the determination of a fair magnitude of a worker’s share evidenced in the amount of received wages, and of a worker’s employment security in the forms of guaranteed tenure and other financial bestowals that an employer must provide within an agreed working engagement.
Nowhere is the volatility in production risks more manifest than in the wavering of value of and in the unsteady return on the products or services offered by the capital-owners in the market, which are also the outputs of a worker’s labor.
Should a worker’s wage and security be fundamentally bounded and shielded from the potentiality of a business loss due to a fall in the prices of its vended commodities arising from poor demand, aggressive competition, etc.?
The assessment of the worth of a market good has evolved from a concept of giving prime importance to the value of labor input, to a concept of submitting to the changing perceived availability and usefulness of the market good itself.
This devaluation of labor is the locus of the following Church’s theological positions which observed its continued degeneration to an economically disadvantaged social class, rendered voiceless and powerless in a state of inescapable oppression:
Labor has been commodified and offered as a market good to the owners of the means of production.
Related to the unfortunate outcome of the theological position in the previous essay in which the ideal of the primacy of labor over capital is inordinately reversed, is the attendant intent for capital-owners to maliciously treat labor just like any “another commodity”. The treatment of workers as “commodities” betrays the underlying proclivity to treat persons as “merely existing for the work that they do” instead of “performing work for the purpose of sustaining the growth of its sapient agent.
Its most evident manifestation is when the value of the exertions of labor as well as of the capacities of workers to render such exertions is no longer appraised in any way other than how much the capital-owners are willing to pay for such capacities or exertions. The worth of their fruits has ceased to be valuated from the viewpoint of workers in terms of what they need to be paid to fulfill their temporal needs or to uphold their human dignity. Worse, if the capital-owners would from this footing of greater leverage press vigorously for its above-mentioned disproportionate claim for the surplus actually generated with or by the workers, then what obviously remains for labor to live with are the cheapest possible remuneration and the lowest possible costs for their protection and security.
A consequence of the commodification of labor is an ever-increasing gap between the wealth, power, prestige of and opportunities available to the rich (owners of capital); and its critical inadequacy in the poor (workers).
The inevitable effect of a continuing claim on the surplus of production at the expense of labor, will be the unjust enrichment of one social group and the impoverishment of another.
This very visible and too familiar reality of a wide and scandalous disparity of the ways of life between the privileged and underprivileged during the rapid modernization of the world in the twentieth century, catalyzed the pioneering commentaries of Catholic Social Teaching, and has permeated its tradition ever since. It is a lingering social anomaly which seems to be beyond any resolution, a universal problem which seems to have transcended both time and borders, solidifying it as an undying theological position across more than ten pontificates.
As a further consequence of the commodification of labor, now because of their lack of privilege and status, workers are taken advantage of; and because of such exploitation, they inherit more disadvantages, thus being buried deeper into a vicious cycle of oppression and greater marginalization from which there seems to be no redemption.
It is a cruel, inescapable fate of those in abject poverty that they will very rarely find hope of coming out of it, because poverty begets poverty.
Though a few may be thought to think, and have actually succeeded in escaping poverty through sheer determination and natural wit, it cannot be denied that the pursuit of prosperity cannot simply be achieved only through industriousness and ingenuity. Poverty itself is surrounded by very difficult obstacles, constraints that are in the interests of the self-preservation of those who are no longer poor, imposed to keep those who are still poor in their state of powerlessness. Such imposed constraints however when set in motion, are self-perpetuating, and the poor is hopelessly sunk and drowned in the vortex of its own struggles; it can be anyone’s convenient excuse for social indifference, that “only the poor should be blamed for their own decay and demise”.
This theological position has been expressed in various forms and different contexts from the misery of the industrial workers; to the destitution of the agricultural workers in the “former” colonies; to the modern-day dilemma of migrant workers.
Brother Jess Matias is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He serves as minister of the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Fraternity at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mandaluyong City, coordinator of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups of the Capuchins in the Philippines and prison counselor and catechist for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.