The Bishop of Brentwood part one

The Bishop of Brentwood made the headlines yesterday for saying in a homily at a Mass that it was a scandal the migrants were exploited by being required to work for low levels of pay and that ‘the Market (sic) always focuses on profit and how to maximise gain’. The first point raises some interesting and difficult issues; the second point will be dealt with in another post.

Firstly, the exploitation issue. Bishop McMahon invoked both Cardinal Manning and Pope Leo XIII’s renowned social encyclical Rerum novarum arguing that it is a scandal that migrants are paid below a living wage. The Bishop himself declared that he was proud to be part of the living wage campaign and then took part in a march. It should be added that he was calling on employers to pay the living wage and not necessarily for it to be legislated. This raises two obvious questions:

  • Does it follow that just because Pope Leo and Cardinal Manning called for a ‘living wage’ that the particular level of the living wage that today’s living wage campaign fights for is the level that Pope Leo and Cardinal Manning had in mind? To believe that all employers should pay a ‘living wage’ as a matter of principle is one thing, to attach oneself to a particular campaign fighting for a particular level of that wage is something else.
  • What would happen to the employment prospects of migrants if all employers decided to pay a living wage of the level the Bishop supports? The Bishop may give this issue serious thought and decide he is still in favour of employers paying a living wage, but he should indeed give this issue serious thought. The likely effect of asking employers to pay a higher level of wages is that people would be replaced by capital equipment and fewer employers would employ migrants. Broadly, this is what happens in France: the economy is more capital intensive, workers are more productive, but the labour market is more or less closed to those who are least productive. Sadly, we are moving in this direction in the UK too.

This second point is crucial because the decision by employers to employ fewer people (either by not expanding their businesses or by employing more capital) is obviously implicit and not overt. It leads to much worse conditions for migrants (who either choose not to leave the countries of origin and have to endure much worse conditions or who come to the UK and are then unemployed) and those employers who pay higher wages to fewer people are then exempt from criticism by the Bishop. At the same time, those employers who decide to take on as much labour as is available but pay lower wages are widely criticised. It is the latter who are probably giving the new migrants a step onto the ladder. There is, of course, provision made in Catholic social teaching for companies not paying a living wage if it endangers the enterprise though the Bishop did not mention this.

There are other issues that could have been mentioned by the Bishop which I think are less difficult. I think it is immoral for an employer to deliberately exploit migrants’ ignorance or lack of knowledge of English and so on, but this is a somewhat different question to that of whether migrants should be paid a given level of wages regardless of their productivity.

Let us finish with a specific example – which is probably not far from the reality. A good Christian person owns an apple orchard and is faced with ten Polish people who would be willing to pick apples for £7 an hour and the Bishop believes the living wage is £8 an hour. The owner can employ machines that cost £7.10 an hour and the orchard is not profitable at a level of pay above £7.50 an hour. There are three possibilities:

  • Employ the Poles at £7.10 an hour – this is highly likely to be a first and useful step on the UK employment ladder for some of them and, presumably, better than the opportunities back at home.
  • Close the orchard so that the Poles remain unemployed and apples are imported.
  • Employ machines.

In the latter two scenarios the orchard owner escapes the criticism of the Bishop, in the first he does not.

I admit that this is not an ‘open and shut case’ – certainly in the context of Catholic social teaching. However, I wonder if the Bishop really has thought about the effects on human flourishing of restricting employment opportunities for migrants. Unlike with regard to the Bishop’s comment on markets, there is much to argue about here, and I do wonder how deeply the Bishop has considered the effect of the chain of events he might set in place. If the Bishop were to think further about the issue, he might turn his attention instead to the planning controls in the south east (including his own diocese), to the Common Agricultural Policy and to the measures the government has taken to raise the cost of fuel, which raise the cost of housing, food and energy. There are two ways to ensure a living wage – the first is to raise wages (with the consequent effect on employment); the second is to remove regulations that raise living costs. In Manning’s time housing costs were much lower relative to incomes. It is clear from his comments on markets (see next blog post) that there is little sign that the Bishop is giving these issues deep thought.

I agree with the analysis here of the bishop's homily. I am a theologian and not an economist but recently I have been reading the work of the American Catholic 'theologian of economics', Michael Novak whose work I would recommend highly. His book 'The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism' is worth the effort in my opinion. Novak claims that bishops and theologians do not understanding economics and I fear he is correct.

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