Rome — Paying workers a just wage has been "one of the most consistent and central themes of Catholic social teaching" for more than a century, said Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
"Wages cannot be left solely to the whim of the market, but must be influenced by justice and equity -- a wage that allows people to live a truly human life and fulfill family obligations," the cardinal said May 2, opening a conference on sustainable development and the future of work.
The four-day conference, co-sponsored by Turkson's office, Caritas Internationalis and the International Labor Organization, brought together an international group of representatives of labor unions, Catholic peace and justice groups, social institutes, as well as Orthodox and Muslim leaders to engage in a dialogue about how labor practices, employment and ecology impact one another.
The pope had spoken about the conference May 1 -- Labor Day in Italy and many other countries. After reciting the "Regina Coeli" prayer, he told people in St. Peter's Square that he hoped the conference "would sensitize authorities, political and economic institutions and civil society for the promotion of a development model that takes into account human dignity with full respect for labor laws and the environment."
And May 2, the pope tweeted about "the grave problem of labor," particularly because of the high rate of unemployment among young adults, but also because the dignity of work is often overlooked in the modern economy.
Opening the conference, Turkson insisted "the need to protect employment" was one of the central themes of Francis' 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si' on care for the environment and the promotion of a "human ecology."
The document affirms that "decent and sustainable work is fundamental to how we care for our common home," the cardinal said. Work is worthy of the human person "when it is decent and sustainable for workers, employers, governments, communities and the environment."
Turkson insisted that human progress cannot be measured simply with indicators of economic growth and the accumulation of material goods. True, sustainable development, he said, relies on economic growth, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.
Decent jobs are the link holding the three together, he said.
Jose M. Ramirez of the International Labor Organization told the conference May 3 that a similar point is enshrined in the international community's 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. "Inclusive growth and decent work for all" is an essential step toward the reduction of poverty around the world, he said.
"Development happens through jobs," he said, but those jobs must provide a living wage and respect the dignity of the human person and respect the environment.
The term "decent work," Ramirez said, refers to jobs that "are productive and deliver a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, to organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men."
Long-term, sustainable development and job growth, he said, will require recognition of the workers' right to collective bargaining, "the elimination of forced or compulsory labor, the abolition of child labor and the elimination of discrimination" in the workplace.
According to the ILO, he said, 168 million children are working, with 85 million of them performing "hazardous work." Some 21 million men and women around the world are victims of forced labor. And, worldwide more than 200 million men and women are unemployed.