Peach and grey toned Working notes covered. An image of protesters sitting with masks on in front of a store asking to be paid a livable wage.

The Just Wage Initiative is an interdisciplinary project based in Notre Dame University’s Center for Social Concerns. Working since 2017, and deeply rooted in the Catholic Social Teaching tradition, this initiative has established seven basic criteria which must be met to ensure a given wage is just.

Developed between academics, employers, employees, and other stakeholders, its initial use has proven promising in industrial negotiations. Workers appreciate how the conversation is geared towards something more than the bottom-line, without losing sight of the importance of the bottom-line in an age of inflation and increasing difficulties for many to make ends meet. Employers appreciate how the conversation is framed around a dialogue, a back-and-forth that can transform working culture. More is on offer in such conversations that trying to control rising wage costs. As one of the architects of the scheme reported to me, “At base, employers want to go to sleep at night knowing they are good people and this framework speaks to their better angels.”

I became aware of the Just Wage initiative when I travelled in 2022 to Dhaka in Bangladesh, to explore what relevance it might play in that labour context. I asked one young garment worker what message she would have me deliver to students I teach or congregations to which I preach, from the floors of the giant sweatshops that surround the city. “Tell them,” she said, “that my blood is on their clothes.” Construing good work simply in terms of pay clearly falls short in the context of such devastating injustice.

This issue of Working Notes seeks to explore the utility of the Just Wage tool and “just wage” as a concept for contemporary Ireland. We begin with a paper by Prof. Dan Graff and Prof. Clemens Sedmak, who have been leaders in the project from the beginning. Prof. Graff is a labour historian and Prof. Sedmak is a social ethicist. Together they chart a path from “A Just Hope to a Just Wage Economy”. Starting the issue with this essay is appropriate since Graff and Sedmak see their work as “a conversation starter, not a conversation stopper”, reminding us that “the idea of a just wage cannot be separated from questions of a decent life and human dignity.”

There is an opportunity in an Irish context, considering the particularities of our economy and the lingering memory of social democracy, to supplement conversations about a just wage with what we might call the “social wage”. In “Raising the Social Wage”, Dr Laura Bambrick of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions looks at how increasing the provision and quality of services attains much of what is hoped for in a just wage, with perhaps greater coverage and inclusivity.

Patrick Brereton, Professor emeritus at DCU in the Communications Department, is well known in Irish environmental circles for his work on how we can construe the climate and biodiversity crisis in our context. In his creative essay, “Just Transition and Representation Of Farming In Ireland”, he considers filmic depictions of Irish rural life to think about how agriculture must change. The reader is introduced to zombie movies and horror films they may never have heard of before. They are, however, left in no doubt that the race to the bottom of price that leaves farmers overworked, under a burden of debt, and at the mercy of supermarket conglomerates is not sustainable. Whatever a “just wage” framework might look like in the Irish countryside, it cannot be more of the same industrial agriculture.

Is this framework just a good idea on paper or is it really practical as a response in the real world? Andreas Müller, Professor of Law at Basel University, considers in his essay “The human right to a just wage in a global and European perspective”. With remarkable attention to detail, he maps out for the reader the intricate web of charters, protocols, and binding commitments in which talk of “Just Wages” can sit. He sketches the hope that lies behind new laws like the EU Commissions Due Diligence directive, but cautions that such initiatives (a similar law is in process within the Dáil) “takes litigation away from where the damage occurred in value chains and transfers it to courts in the Global North, thus “delocalizing” justice”.

In the final paper, Céire Kealty, a PhD student in Theology who is just about to finish up at Villanova University, shares her research under the title: “‘Sewing’ Justice: A Theological Response to Garment Worker Exploitation.” It is fitting that Theology and ethics gets the last word in this issue since at base the problem of wages is the problem of recognising the dignity in the other. “What do we owe each other?” is the question that drives all our social, political, and economic action and Ms. Kealty demonstrates that Catholic Social thought has meaningful contributions to inform our answer, especially in the context of the exploitation of garment workers – not just in Bangladesh but in Los Angeles or Leicester as well.

Catholic Social Teaching has, from the beginning, been concerned with the idea of a just wage. The modern tradition is dated from Pope Leo XIII’s publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891. There we find that the Christian cannot be content with a society which has installed the floor of a minimum wage. This is where much of our political thinking presently rests. It is not even enough for us to establish a subsistence wage that would guarantee basic needs are met. This would be considered a reach in many contemporary policy conversations. More than a century ago, the Pope was clear that what was needed was a just wage that would allow a worker to live a good and dignified life.

To pay a worker less than is just, the Pontiff asserts, is to commit fraud and this is a “great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven.” Even the most strident trade unionist in the English-speaking world today would struggle to match the force of this rhetoric. A person should end up with enough money at the end of a week’s work to respect their dignity, support their basic needs, and allow them to support others.

It is striking that the Pope’s perspective from the 1890s would be a radical position today. Our context is clearly one that needs a new way to talk about justice in work, to counteract the growing inequality and insecurity that marks our economies. In some settings, it might be important to emphasise that making work better for people – not just materially but as a lived experience – is one of the best available ways to undercut the populist turn that threatens our present political arrangements. But we worry that instrumentalising the conversation in that way misses the basic point that Catholic Social Teaching has held front and central for more than a century: The person you pay is not just your worker, but is your neighbour. They are worth more than just what they can do for you. And the pay they receive is not just how they make ends meet, it is a medium through which all of society is sustained. To seek justice there is the beginning of the fight to achieve justice anywhere.

1 Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (Vatican City: Vatican, 1891), §20