How would Rerum Novarum be beneficial in Colombia?

Hayley Schrakamp

Pope Leo’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, addresses the unsatisfactory working conditions of the poor.  The CST or Catholic Social Teaching Organization has called Rerum Novarum “the beginning of modern Catholic social teaching[1]”. Leo’s Rerum Novarum reaches far beyond Catholicism though; in his encyclical Leo argues against the ideas of socialism and unrestricted capitalism while making a great argument for private property and unions.  The Pope presented many revolutionary ideas at the time, speaking on behalf of the poorest workers in the poorest countries. If applied to a poor country, specifically Colombia, Leo’s ideas for labor reform could be extremely beneficial.

Written In 1891 as a response to a growing disparity of wealth in many areas of the world, Pope Leo’s encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum, addressed the rights and duties of laborers and those with greater wealth who employed them. Written as a response to the need for revolution brought about by negative economic ideas, Leo argued for the right to private property, preferential option for the poor, and the rights and duties of workers as well as the rights and duties of their employers.  The revolutionary papal document extends far beyond Catholic Social Teaching; it was the first encyclical to address social and economic issues and criticize and respond to certain economic theories, such as Marxism, socialism, and capitalism. The Pope’s Rerum Novarum written as a reply to the unlawful condition of the working class that arose in the shadow of communist, socialist, and capitalist ideals has been called  “the map for assessing any modern nation’s social and political policies[2]” by Steven Schneck of the Catholic Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. Pope Leo’s unique way of addressing the condition of the working class, while responding to the social conflict that had risen in the wake of capitalism, socialism, and communism created a timeless encyclical, still relevant today.  Pope Leo’s ideas on labor practices displayed in his revolutionary encyclical can still be used in the reform of modern day working conditions.

It is not hard to see that the condition of the working class today is lacking in many parts of the world.  The evidence of the flaws in the division of labor, rights and duties of workers and their employers, and right of association are apparent in not only in third world countries, but wealthier nations as well. Too often workers are oppressed by low wages, poor working conditions, and the inability to join unions.  In many countries it is a vicious cycle of poverty for the less entitled workers.  Grown tired with their insufficient working conditions, workers attempt to join and or create labor unions to get the recognition or treatment that they deserve, only to discover that it is not allowed in their country.  In Colombia less than five percent of workers are members of trade unions, less than double what it was twenty years ago.  Due to anti-trade union policies in many countries, such as Colombia and India, workers have no choice but to accept their jobs where they are under compensated and oppressed.  The application of Pope Leo’s ideals for labor practices in Rerum Novarum is necessary for the reform of the working class.  Rerum Novarum, which was written as a response to socialism, capitalism, and communism, in an effort to address the rights and duties of labor and reform unfair labor practices, would be beneficial in the struggle for justice and workers’ rights specifically in a country such as Colombia.

After just a quick skim of Justice for Colombia’s website one can clearly see the need for an improvement in worker’s rights in the country of Colombia. Created in 2002 by a British organization in response to anti-trade union violence and laws in Colombia, Justice for Colombia aims to “campaign for human rights, workers’ rights and the search for peace with social justice in Colombia.3” Colombia is a country rich in natural resources, such as petroleum, coal, and emeralds, with over twenty five percent of the workforce working in agriculture.  Colombia may be rich in natural resources, but do to a forty five year long war in the country between the government and guerilla groups, much of the country is left in poverty.  War within the country has also caused changes in the government as well as changes in Colombia’s economy.  Obviously these changes have not been good for the laborers in Colombia, specifically speaking worker’s rights and trade unions.  According to Justice for Colombia, “Recent years have seen the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies in Colombia that have significantly impacted, sometimes directly through changes to the Labour Code, on the rights of workers.”  One of the main consequences of the economic reforms would have to be the increase in the number of informal workers in Colombia. Out of the eighteen million people in the workforce over eleven million are working in the informal economy, out of the remaining seven million people only four million benefit from permanent employment contracts while the other three million only receive temporary employment contracts.  Only those with permanent employment contracts are covered by the Labor Code. Only those covered by the Labor Code have the right to join a union.  Without the protection of a union, workers are unable to negotiate for better pay or stand up for themselves.  Employers are so threatened by unions, that they have been known to restructure their companies, so that workers formally with permanent contracts now have temporary contracts or are employed by “employment co-operatives.[3]”  Employment with an employment co-operative is seen as the same things as being self-employed, so it is very difficult for workers to continue their union membership. A report by the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards “[raised] concerns in relation to the increase use of cooperatives which, they stated, place obstacles in the way of freedom of association3”. The lack of freedom given to workers in Colombia is appalling, but with the application of Pope Leo’s principals on labor presented in his encyclical, Rerum Novarum, the state of the workforce in Colombia could immensely improve.

Pope Leo’s Rerum Novarum is all about improving poor working conditions as a result of communism, socialism, and capitalism.  Colombia is a country with unsatisfactory labor conditions and poor workers’ rights caused by war within the country. The war going on in Colombia has caused change within the government which has led to the establishment of new laws, such as anti-trade union laws. Pope Leo stressed the importance of unions in Rerum Novarum, saying “by means of such [unions] as afford opportune aid to those who are in distress, and which draw the two classes more closely together. Among these may be enumerated societies for mutual help… and institutions for the welfare of boys and girls, young people, and those more advanced in years.[4]”  According to Pope Leo the anti-trade union laws in Colombia have left the workers more vulnerable without any help or support, and have expanded the gap between workers and their employers. Due to the anti-trade union laws it can be assumed that the support of workers is lacking in Colombia. In Colombia workers do not have the help of unions in negotiating pay, making them more susceptible to receiving insufficient pay from their employers. LawTeacher, a trusted source for law support since 2003, has said “The employees have realized that to protect themselves from exploitation, unity is very important. This is one of the reasons why trade unions have become so important today.[5]”  Even when workers in Colombia manage to join unions they still have violence and prejudice.  Anti-trade union violence is extremely prevalent in Colombia. Since 1986 nearly two thousand eight hundred union activists have been assassinated in Colombia, in addition to the assassinations over 200 trade union activists have disappeared for unknown reasons. There is no known punishment for trade-union violence in Colombia with nobody having been convicted in ninety seven percent of the assassinations of trade union activists. The number of anti-union violence has only been increasing. Rerum Novarum calls for the protection of workers; workers standing up for their rights should not be met with violence or hatred. It is the duty of the government to protect the workers. According to Pope Leo the protection of worker’s rights depends upon laws established by the government. It is the duty of the Colombian government to not only allow workers to join unions for the protection and support, but also to protect them against violence.

The establishment of the labor practices established in Rerum Novarum would be extremely beneficial in Colombia. Colombia a country whose turmoil within their government, due to war, has caused unsatisfactory workers’ rights needs a change of some sort in their government.  Rerum Novarum presents many ideas on the improvement of working conditions. Pope Leo’s Rerum Novarum would have positive effects on any country, not just Colombia.

[1] Chan, Stephen, OFM. “Holy Spirit Study Centre – Publications – Tripod Summer 2011 Vol. 31 – No. 161 Communio Et Progressio 40th Anniversary.” Holy Spirit Study Centre – Publications – Tripod Summer 2011 Vol. 31 – No. 161 Communio Et Progressio 40th Anniversary. 2011. Accessed April/May 2016.

[2] Coday, Denis; Schneck, Stephen. “Rerum Novarum Still Speaks to Globalized Economy.” National Catholic Reporter. May 6, 2011. Accessed April/May 2016.

[3] “About Colombia.” JFC News. Accessed April/May 2016.

[4] Pope Leo, XIII. “Rerum Novarum (May 15, 1891) | LEO XIII.” Rerum Novarum (May 15, 1891) | LEO XIII. May 15, 1891. Accessed April/May 2016.

[5] Hammer. “The Importance of Trade Unions | Law Teacher.” The Importance of Trade Unions | Law Teacher. Accessed April/May 2016.


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