What is a “Just Wage” in Catholic Social Teaching?

Would that these words, written at a time [1891] when what has been called “unbridled capitalism” was pressing forward, should not have to be repeated today [1991] with the same severity. Unfortunately, even today one finds instances of contracts between employers and employees which lack reference to the most elementary justice regarding the employment of children or women, working hours, the hygienic condition of the work-place and fair pay; and this is the case despite the International Declarations and Conventions on the subject and the internal laws of States. The Pope attributed to the “public authority” the “strict duty” of providing properly for the welfare of the workers, because a failure to do so violates justice; indeed, he did not hesitate to speak of “distributive justice.”

Pope Saint John Paul II, Centesimus Annus § 8 ⁋ 3

Ideally, every family would be both workers and owners of productive property. By working on their own land or at their own business, they could satisfy their needs. However, because of personal and social sin, some people end up not owning any property, and they must sell their labor to someone who does so that they can survive. This kind of servitude is called wagedom.

Many socialists argue that this system of wages is always exploitative. But according to Pope Pius XI, “those who declare that a contract of hiring and being hired is unjust of its own nature… are certainly in error” (Quadragesimo Anno § 64). However, the same Pope is very clear that the purpose of wages is to help “non-owning workers, through industry and thrift, advance to the state of possessing some little property” (§ 63).

To do this, employers must pay their workers a just wage. What is the definition of just wage? “Just remuneration for the work of an adult who is responsible for a family means remuneration which will suffice for establishing and properly maintaining a family and for providing security for its future” (Laborem Exercens § 19 ⁋ 3). A just wage is a gradual way to raise a family back up to the state of ownership, while providing for its needs in the meantime. 

The just wage does not assume that both parents are working. “It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home…” (QA § 71)

Some people claim that a just wage is too much for many companies to pay. To this Pope Pius XI says, “…if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman” (QA § 71). Pope Saint John Paul II states that a system without just wages is a system without justice: “a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly. It is not the only means of checking, but it is a particularly important one and, in a sense, the key means” (LE § 19 ⁋ 2).

This means that labor “cannot be bought and sold like a commodity” (QA § 83). The consent of the worker to work for an unjust wage does not justify his exploitation. “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice” (Rerum Novarum § 45).

This is why unjust wages, which violate natural and divine law, are frequently condemned in the Bible. And this is why liberal capitalism, a system built and sustained by unjust wages, has been condemned by the Holy Fathers

To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven. “Behold, the hire of the laborers… which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.”(6) Lastly, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred. 

Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum § 20