Industrial relations and the Free Market

By Brian Edgar

What are the moral and theological implications of government policy on industrial relations in a free-market context?  Questions about industrial relations cannot be dealt with separately from a consideration of the free market system of which it is a part.  Despite some claims to the contrary, this system is neither morally neutral nor unrelated to Christian principles. While not suggesting that it is the only (or even the best) approach to economic management, its various elements can be justified theologically and ethically.

Theologically, the God-given responsibility for people to be stewards of creation, to work the land, to live in community and to exercise freedom and moral responsibility can be worked out in the form of a contemporary free-market system.  For such a market to work it clearly requires some form of corporate ethical grounding.  Property rights, contracts, freedom to trade, labour-management relationships, regulations of all kinds and much more cannot operate without agreed social, moral values.

My discussion of these issues originally provided a background paper for the Australian Evangelical Alliance’s policy on industrial relations. The AEA observed that industrial relations legislation is not just about how a wage is set, it is about the kind of society we want to be. A Christian view of the legislation will require reflection on the biblical and theological principles which relate to at least five broad areas of life -

  • Money and economics – these deal with wages and what is fair and appropriate reward for work done
  • Time and the relationship of work to other activities – there is a potentially significant shift in the social philosophy of the way that time is viewed in our society.
  • Relationships between people, families and other social groups – the legislation affects families and the ability of individuals to provide for dependents. The net amount earned is important but it is not the only issue, security and tenure are equally important.
  • The freedom, choice and the power of the individual There are significant differences of opinion about where power lies and ought to lie and concerning what freedom actually is.
  • The treatment of the weak, the less able and the disadvantaged Given that the gospel has a bias towards those who are disadvantaged the proposed legislation must be able to answer the question as to whether it will provide appropriate economic support and care for those who are disadvantaged.

What do we want? A society which will…

  • Have a different vision of life:  where the basic mechanisms are not individual and economic
  • Focus on the common good in the setting of wages – (for high earners as well as low)
  • Focus on family and relationships – avoiding the damage of  casualisation/contractualisation
  • Promote vocations rather than jobs (and even not just ‘careers’)
  • Value work in terms more than simply its economic value to business
  • Pays workers according to needs of family: resist the notion that any job is better than no job. Important to pay workers what is required for life rather than what is required for the business (with the government then having to become responsible for supplementing income via social welfare)
  • Provide greater assistance for disadvantaged – young – old
  • Work towards stability for families in work practices and pay
  • Have social equity as a higher goal than economic growth
  • Reduce differences between ‘classes’ in terms of work conditions
  • Avoid creating a class of working poor.
  • Seek satisfaction in work rather than materialism/consumerism
  • Have a spiritual dimension to life, not only a material view of work and pay
  • Prefer collaboration as much as competition

The complete paper, Industrial Relations and the Free Market
  can be downloaded.

The substance of this paper appeared in two parts in the September and October editions of The Melbourne Anglican.

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