Conference at the European Parliament on the encyclical letter Laborem exercens (On Human Work)
On 21 September a conference was held at the European Parliament which was unusual in terms of its subject, the diversity of the speakers and the organisations joining forces to promote it.
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the encyclical letter Laborem exercens, an audience numbering around 100 learned that the message of the central role of work for the human person, developed in this document dating from 1981, is still headline news today. Pope John Paul II had in fact written it primarily to encourage and guide the Solidarnosc movement in Poland, which at that time had just emerged as the first-ever free trade union in the Soviet bloc.
Looking beyond the immediate aim of the text, COMECE, the European Peoples Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) wanted to put the spotlight on the current importance of this text to a Europe at the crossroads for defining both its position and its role in a globalised economy. To this end, they invited a broad range of speakers from political, church, trade union and academic circles.
The conference was opened by Othmar Karas MEP, who made the connection between the encyclical Letter and the Church’s social teaching in general and also the Lisbon Treaty, which establishes the ‘social market economy’ as one of the principal objectives of the European Union. The key speech of this event at the European Parliament was delivered by Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He emphasised that great care needed to be given to gaining a full understanding of human dignity and human work. “As a person, man is therefore the subject of work. As a person he works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity.”
Vittorio Prodi, MEP Socialists and Democrats (S&D), concentrated on the concept of the ‘indirect employer’ as mentioned in Laborem exercens. It is in fact a duty of the State “to conduct a just labour policy” (Laborem exercens, 17.2). This concept was also highly useful in the context of the global economy and globalisation and found support from Pierre Martinot-Lagarde SJ, Special Advisor for Socio-Religious Affairs of the International Labour Organization (ILO). In his contribution he presented an overall picture not only of Laborem exercens (1981) but also of the encyclicals Centesimus Annus (1991) and Mater et Magistra which Pope John XXIII had published in 1961. The fight against discrimination and unemployment, and the defence of trade union freedom was also, in his opinion, the principal contribution of the Church’s social teaching in the contemporary search for the global common good.
Finally, the trade union world was represented by Jozef Niemiec, Deputy Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). In his contribution he pointed out how important the encyclical letter in 1981 had been for the Solidarnosc movement and for him personally. Mrs Stanislawa Golinowska, director of the Jagiellonian University of Kracow’s Institute for Public Health, contributed some statistics illustrating the reality of youth unemployment (20% of those aged 15–24 last July), the shrinking trade union membership in Europe and the persistent gender-based discrimination in the world of work.
This last point was also emphasised by Mrs Sylvie Goulard, MEP Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), who particularly encouraged the Church to speak up for the poor in the economic crisis which was likely to become more acute in the next few years. The current generation of political decision-makers had a duty to recover some credibility in the management of public finances after so many years of wastefulness and indebtedness. Such mismanagement would inevitably have repercussions on the standard of living of the population. Greater attention should therefore be paid to those who were poorest.
In his concluding address, Fr Piotr Mazurkiewicz, COMECE General Secretary, declared his satisfaction with the event as a whole, and particularly how it had shown that the Church’s social teaching was not confined to only one political group. He recalled that Jesus, as a manual labourer Himself, had so to speak validated the dignity of human work, thus overturning the philosophy of antiquity which regarded work as a curse. Nevertheless, a balance needed to be found between work and rest. Laborem exercens includes a right to rest as one of its social provisions thus: “In the first place this involves a regular weekly rest comprising at least Sunday and also a longer period of rest, namely the holiday or vacation taken once a year” (L.E., 19.6) COMECE’s commitment to a more explicit protection of Sundays at European level stems from, amongst other sources, this teaching of the Blessed Pope John Paul II.
The most topical section of the Pontifical text was, however, the warning it gives on the danger of materialism: “This fundamental error of thought can and must be called ‘an error of materialism’ in that economism directly or indirectly includes a conviction of the primacy and superiority of the material, and directly or indirectly places the spiritual and the personal [….] in a position of subordination to material reality .” (L.E., 13.3)
Translated from the original French
Extract from the speech of Fr Pierre Martinot-Lagarde SJ, ILO Special Advisor for Socio-Religious Affairs.
During an inter-religious workshop in this session, we have had the opportunity to note the points of convergence between the representations of the Ecumenical Council of Churches, the Catholic Church, the world of Islam, of Buddhists and the Jewish world. This work harks back to fundamental values that are shared over and above cultural and philosophical differences.
1. First of all, the value of work is understood in the context of human dignity. This can be expressed in a number of different ways. Work has its part in creation, in the redemption of man. It allows all individuals to exercise their basic responsibilities towards themselves, their families and society.
2. Two other dimensions which were raised in the discussions were those of solidarity and security. Through work, human beings experience both a de facto solidarity and a solidarity of condition. At the ILO, we say that poverty poses a threat to prosperity. In every culture this solidarity of condition finds expression in a commitment to solidarity between the members of the organisation and also a commitment to the security and protection of individuals.
3. Finally, a commitment to social justice in favour of peace. At the ILO, this sentiment is ingrained in the Constitution. It was included there at the moment when the First World War had just ended. Many representatives declared how important it was for them to have a commitment to peace, and considered work as being an important step in this direction.
In former times, the Laborem exercens encyclical letter had defined the role of the ILO at another level – that of indirect employers charged with the duty of introducing greater justice into the world of work. Today, the ILO defines this duty in terms of four main pillars which are interdependent and reinforce one another: employment and the fabric of entrepreneurship, social protection, social dialogue, and fundamental rights.