4.3.9 ‘Rights of Workers’ (LE ##16-23)

Back to 4.3.8

Unit 4 Contents


You are now well over half way through Laborem Exercens.  Maybe the Pope was wanting to make people experience the hard toil of intellectual work!

Not only are we more than half way through, but we have now worked through the most difficult parts.  The remaining two chapters are (a bit) easier.

You will recall that Rerum Novarum used the language of duties and rights, referring, for example, to the duties of employers towards their workers, and to the right of property ownership.  In the 90 years between 1891 and 1981, Catholic teaching on rights and duties had developed a long way – this is the subject of Unit 7 later in this module.  In particular, the encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1963 had given a very clear affirmation of a pretty comprehensive range of human rights.

Given this background, it is to be expected that John Paul would cast a significant part of his discussion of work and rest in terms of obligations and rights.  He says first that humans have a God-given duty to work.  Later in this chapter he describes several rights that people have as workers.  They include

  • a right to work, or, if the economy means that no work is available, to unemployment benefit provided by the state  (#18)
  • a right to just remuneration for work done (#19)
  • a right to affordable or free medical care (#19)
  • a right to weekly rest and other holidays (#19)
  • a right to pension provision in old age (#19)
  • a right to associate with other workers in trade unions (#20).

On the last of these, LE makes a stronger statement about the necessity of trade unions than any previously in CST.  After summarizing the role of unions as “defending the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned”, it states that they are “an indispensable element of social life” (#20).

Pope John Paul also insists on the specific rights of disabled persons, whether they can or cannot work (#22), and that people have a right to migrate in search of work (#23).

Summing up, all those rights together specify what is necessary if work is to be worthy of humanity.

Given the emphasis throughout LE that work is essential to human fulfilment, there are strong statements about unemployment.  This is “in all cases… an evil, and [it]… can become a real social disaster” (#18). The right of people to work means that CST regards action that will reduce unemployment as a major priority for public policy.

All of that can be seen as in line with what Leo XIII taught in Rerum Novarum, even though it certainly goes further and is more concrete and specific.

However the question must be raised: is this realistic?  Who is responsible for ensuring the rights of workers are upheld?  Well the most obvious answer, in relation to most of those rights, is the employer – and John Paul certainly agrees with this.

Yet he also introduces what was, in this encyclical, an entirely new concept in CST – that of the ‘indirect employer’.  This is the main subject of the first part of this chapter (##16-17).  He argues basically that, if the rights of workers are to be respected, it is not only the direct employer (i.e. the specific organization you or I happen to work for) which has responsibilities, but also other organizations that help to establish the context and the structures within which we work.

You will, I am sure, know about ‘Fairtrade’ products, such as some coffee or chocolate.  They give the simplest example of the ‘indirect employer’.  If we in the UK, as consumers, buy a bar of chocolate made with cocoa beans grown in Ghana, we are the indirect employer of the people who harvest the beans.  Those people are working for us, indirectly.  As soon as you see this, it’s obvious.  What it means is that we have some responsibility for those workers’ conditions – for whether their rights as workers are upheld, e.g. their wage levels.  We have this responsibility because we are employing them to produce the chocolate we eat.

Commenting on LE, Robert Destro puts the point in this way:

In a global economy one cannot evade the moral responsibility for the welfare of workers in other countries by the simple expedient of pointing the finger at the local plantation or sweatshop owner.  If one enjoys the fruits of others’ labor, one must assume some degree of moral responsibility for their welfare.1

Recognizing this is the basic reason for buying Fairtrade goods.  They cost us more, but this is because – assuming the system works – the workers are being paid more.



Destro was writing in the early 1990s – a decade after LE’s publication – and, immediately after the sentences just quoted, he said, “Only rarely does this message seem to get through”.

Do you think we can say that growth in the Fairtrade movement since then suggests it has begun to do so?


From what Pope John Paul says in introducing the concept of the ‘indirect employer’, it is clear that it has much wider significance than in relation only to Fairtrade goods.  He thinks that all kinds of institution, especially large and powerful ones in both public and private sectors, need to be seen as indirect employers of many workers they don’t employ directly.  This is because such institutions help to generate and sustain the general practices and standards in relation to working conditions which affect many other employers, and therefore workers.

His argument is that indirect employers, as well as direct employers, have to pay careful attention to the effects of what they do, especially in establishing structures in which people have to work, if workers’ rights really are going to be upheld.

John Paul says that the point of drawing attention to the ‘indirect employer’ “is not to absolve the direct employer from his own responsibility, but only to draw attention to the whole network of influences that condition his conduct” (#17).

Donal Dorr explains the concept of the indirect employer helpfully.

If an employer refuses to pay a worker a living wage, that would seem at first sight to be an obvious case of one-to-one injustice [i.e. that the employer is treating the worker unjustly].  But what if the situation is such that it is economically impossible for the employer to pay a just wage?  Many employers are trapped in an economic system that does not enable them to pay their workers properly; if they did so, their products would be priced out of the market…

The poor countries are not the only places where conditions hinder or prevent the payment of an objectively just wage.  There are sectors of the economy in practically all countries where this happens.2

Dorr observes that whether workers can form unions to seek justice collectively will be one important factor in determining whether that happens.  Lamoureux connects this with John Paul’s statement about the ‘indispensability’ of unions: “The notion of indirect employer helps to provide a rationale for this indispensability”.3

Dorr continues:

If the concept of ‘the indirect employer’ is taken seriously it provides the basis for an answer to the objection that the pope is unrealistic in this encyclical.  It is all too easy to accept that it is utopian of the pope… to assume that when he speaks (#19) about the right of workers to a vacation, or the right of the old or the sick to social welfare benefits, he could scarcely be taking account of the reality of the Third World.  But what he says about ‘the indirect employer’ is a clear challenge to all of us to create a world in which such apparently unrealistic ideas can in fact be realized universally.4

What this means in practice is that people in positions of authority in institutions, including not least in government, and those who can influence them, such as campaigners, journalists and voters at elections, have some responsibility for improving the practices, customs and structures of ‘indirect employers’.

The earlier chapters of LE addressed issues some of which are less immediately relevant now than they were in 1981 (e.g. to do with Marxism).  But this concept of the the ‘indirect employer’ which John Paul introduces in Chapter 4 is certainly as significant now for efforts to secure the rights of workers as it ever was.

As you read this chapter, try to think of specific examples – maybe from your own experience of working life – of institutions whose practices affect the working conditions of people they don’t directly employ.

Here are four examples:

  • Purchasers of Apple products are indirect employers of people in Chinese factories where many of them are made.
  • A local council, such as Southwark Council in London, is the indirect employer of the workers employed by the private company contracted to repair blocks of flats which the Council owns.
  • The government agency called the Higher Education Funding Council for England is an indirect employer of university lecturers, because its policy is very significant for such outcomes as staff levels and workloads.
  • The UK government is an indirect employer of all workers because it establishes minimum standards for working conditions, such as for safety in the workplace and wages (the statutory Minimum Wage).


Reading (10pp)

Laborem Exercens, Chapter IV, all: ## 16-23




Who is your ‘indirect employer?’  For almost any job, there is likely to be more than one. What about other people you know?

How does what they do affect working conditions?

Can your direct employer control those effects, or is the particular organization you work for stuck with them, regardless of what it does itself?



End of 4.3.9

Go to 4.3.10 ‘Elements for a Spirituality of Work’ (##24-27)


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  1. R. Destro, ‘Work: the Human Environment’, in Building the Free Society: Democracy Capitalism, and Catholic Social Teaching, eds G. Weigel and R. Royal (Eerdmans, 1993), 179 

  2. Dorr, Option for the Poor (ref. in 4.2.2 n. 1), 291 

  3. Lamoureux, ‘Laborem Exercens’ (ref. in 4.3.2 n. 1), 402 

  4. Dorr, Option for the Poor, 293 

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