The right wage. Is the market wage always the right wage?

To receive the right wage is essential for most people who depend on a wage in order to subsist.


In Nº 2434 of the Catechism it is said that it would be a big injustice to deny or to retain the right wage. But how to evaluate which is the right wage?: Work has to be remunerated in such a way that a man and his family can live their material, social, cultural and spiritual life with dignity, taking into account everyone’s task and productivity, as well as the firm’s conditions and the common interest” (Catechism Nº 2434).


In a way, the wage must be so high that, under human working conditions and human time-tables, the worker and his family can live with dignity. When the wage is fixed, the hardness of the job has to be considered, also the necessary formation time in order to do it, as well as the value of the good produced by the worker and the conditions of the firm (it seems reasonable to fix a higher wage when the worker produces a lot and, on the other hand, when the firm doesn’t produce too much, not to ask for a wage above the quantity the firm can give).


On the other hand, the general interest has to be considered inside and outside the country. Therefore, it can be right, for instance, in rich countries to impose a tax on wages, especially on the higher ones, in order to help poor countries, where workers can scarcely subsist. Also to avoid that, inside the country, other workers loose their jobs because they have fixed too high wages. Although, this reason cannot be used in order to bring wages under their fair level, by saying that only by reducing wages there will be work for every one, because, as historical experience shows, that is false: in countries and in periods where real wages have grown occupation has also increased, there have been more workers with a job -for instance, in England from 1940 to 1960. On the other hand, in countries of the Third World where wages are very low, there is, even so, a very high rate of unemployed people.


Besides, it is not ethical to cheat in what one owes in justice to a worker, by stating that this way we shall have some good results: the aim does not justify the means.


Is it enough to pay the market wage and that the wage is freely accorded by both sides, in order that this wage be the right wage?


The remark contained in Nº 2434 of the Catechism is quite important: “The agreement by both sides is not enough to morally justify the amount of the wage”. Such assert is supported by the words of the “Rerum Novarum” Encyclical (131):


If the worker “forced by need or pursued by the fear to a worse danger and against his will accepts harder conditions, because the boss or employer imposes them, that is  certainly an imposing action, against which justice cry for”:


Certainly, sometimes it is said  that nobody voluntarily accepts an injustice and, therefore, a buy and sell contract (in the case of a wage contract selling work for a wage) is already just if it is freely accorded by both sides. But certainly a millionaire dying of thirst in the desert, would be “free” not to accept paying several million dollars for a glass of water offered to him by a merchandiser without scruples. But such a freedom is only apparent, for if he doesn’t accept, he will die of thirst: it is as if he had a gun to his head.


Similarly, if a worker has to choose between a miserly wage and dying of hunger, he will, at first sight, “freely” accept the miserly wage, but in reality obliged by the need to live. Therefore, a wage can be unjust, even if it is freely accorded by both sides.


An important consequence of this is that the setting of a wage cannot be left only to the forces of the market, thinking that the market is always fair, but that it has to be the authority of the State who has to establish the right environment by which the labor contract can be made with true justice (minimal wage, working conditions, etc…).