How the nature of work changed
This interplay of different supports for workers, however, is largely absent from contemporary approaches to work.
"Once you get to the Industrial Revolution, work changes radically for the worker," said Fr. Thomas Petri, OP, Dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate conception.
Shifts in labor and mass-production made it more difficult for some to see the dignity of work and the importance of the worker as a person.
"There's a problem in markets when workers are depersonalized," he told CNA. "It takes away in some way the dignity of the worker and makes work into some sort of a monotonous, humdrum thing."
In part as a response to the changes facing the world during the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII wrote "Rerum Novarum," outlining the Church's teaching on the proper relationships between people, the state, labor and capital. Along with discussing the role of private property, unions, and a worker's duties to their employer, Pope Leo XIII emphasized the importance of an employer's duties to their employees.
The document, Fr. Petri said, aims "to remind people that work still has dignity," as well as to serve as a reminder to all that business should serve the common good.
It also states that while "the state has to be involved in the adjudication of just wages," Fr. Petri said, "there has to be communal support for the person." The Pope emphasizes that institutions like the family, the Church, other institutions along with the state can help provide a living for workers.
"Minimum wage isn't the only thing that can help support families," Fr. Petri said.
While the state has a role in making sure all its citizens receive what they need for a good and virtuous life, "it seems to me that the Church's social justice teaching suggests that this should also work in business," he said.
Fr. Petri pointed to examples of company towns that provided housing, the provision of healthcare or education benefits, or employee-ownership of companies as examples of ways a business could expand its provision for its employees.
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However, while the Church's teaching, both in "Rerum Novarum" and other documents, does not provide strict prescriptions for all the ways employers can provide for their employees, not all contracts or forms of payment are morally acceptable.
"Just because an employee agrees to work for a certain wage does not therefore make the wage inherently just," Fr. Petri said.
"Sometimes people work for a pittance because they're socially forced to or they have no other opportunities for a greater income. Leo XIII speaks about that as an evil."
He pointed to many companies' practice of hiring of undocumented workers for very low wages as an example of this kind of mistreatment. To compound the issue, Fr. Petri said, illegal immigrants can't speak up about their mistreatment without fearing for deportation or other consequences.
In cases were businesses are acting immorally, "I think the government has a right to exert legislative authority in those cases where it's clear that they are mistreating their workers," Fr. Petri said.
"That's what unions were supposed to do, that's why unions were started."