A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay

Justice Matters

Catholic Social Justice Commission

MOST people would agree that they should do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. They would also wish to receive in their turn a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

What is a fair day’s work? It is easy to answer this question in general terms. The worker is conscientious, observes the terms of his or her engagement, acts cooperatively with and honestly towards others in the workplace, uses resources efficiently, and produces the required goods and services.

It is more difficult to be prescriptive about what this means in specific instances. As a result, assessing whether a worker is living up to these standards will often be subjective.

There are other complications. What if workers are employed under oppressive conditions or under duress? What if health and safety are at risk? These situations are not just theoretical possibilities. We often read, for example, how migrants and holders of work visas are grossly underpaid and exploited – despite the elaborate machinery in place for establishing and enforcing work conditions. A fair day’s work looks very different in such circumstances.

What is a fair day’s pay? Australia has wrestled with this question for well over a century and the answers have changed over time.

In the early 1900s we introduced the concept of a basic wage, tailored in part to family needs, as the foundation for our pay structure. That has gradually given way to a complex system based on employers’ capacity to pay, the state of the economy, productivity, and workers’ responsibilities and skills. The contemporary concept of a “minimum” wage might seem to imply some recognition of the individual worker’s needs, but in practice takes no account of family responsibilities.

What does the Catholic Church’s social teaching have to say? In essence it stands for the principles that:

• A worker’s income should be at least enough to meet his or her needs and those of his or her family;

• Tax and other government policies should recognise the impact of family members who are financially dependent on the worker.

It is not practical or fair to expect employers to pay workers with children at higher rates. Instead successive governments have stepped into the breach by assisting parents through the tax system and social support. Some question whether this is fair to childless taxpayers, but Catholic teaching strongly favours community recognition of and support for children’s needs.

The Church is also insistent that vulnerable groups should have special protection in the workplace. These include people with disabilities, young people new to the labour force, and those with limited skills in English. The essential point here is the serious imbalance in power between employer and worker, leading to the sorts of aforementioned abuses.

Equally at odds with fairness are the very high salaries and bonuses – often in multiple millions of dollars – that some senior executives receive. These levels of remuneration can be the outcome of agreements struck with a board that is not, or appears not to be, “at arm’s length” – and they look even more unfair when they are reward for cutting the number and/or conditions of employees.

How does the principle of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” apply to unpaid workers such as parents at home, carers and volunteers? At first sight it might not seem to apply at all. The worker has duties as does his or her paid counterpart, but receives nothing material in return.

Unpaid workers are, however, entitled to expect their workplaces to be respectful, healthy and safe. They should also have the scope to earn an adequate income elsewhere or to be materially supported by the community (for example, through carer payments) and, if working at home, by family members with paid work or other resources.