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19 Jun 2018 9:28
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  •   Home > News > International

    Fact check: Did the Pope declare wage theft a mortal sin that reaps eternal punishment?

    Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Sally McManus has tweeted that the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, has declared wage theft a mortal sin, for which punishment is eternal. RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.


    The claim

    The union movement has enlisted the opinion of an unlikely ally — the Catholic Church — in its campaign to make wage theft a crime.

    With a warning that should worry dodgy bosses, Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Sally McManus has told her Twitter followers that the spiritual stakes are high for employers who rip-off their workers: "The Pope is making @unionsaustralia look soft on wage theft. He's declared it a mortal sin so punishment is eternal".

    Is that really what the Pope said?

    And do mortal sins attract eternal punishment?

    RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

    The verdict

    Ms McManus's claim is a faithful account.

    Although Pope Francis didn't specifically say "wage theft", he did refer to examples that fall within the term's broad meaning.

    Strictly speaking, there is no agreed definition of wage theft.

    However, Fact Check takes it to mean deliberate non-compliance with legal obligations relating to employee entitlements — whether that's underpaying wages or withholding leave payments and superannuation.

    And the Pope said those "who don't pay" are committing a mortal sin.

    Indeed, Catholic doctrine makes clear that his admonition applies to intentional acts of greed or stinginess by employers. And the Catholic Bible shows Jesus took a similar view.

    So what's the punishment for a mortal sin?

    Without a good excuse — for example, ignorance or a pathological disorder — then the Catholic Church says sinners should brace for "eternal hell".

    That's unless, of course, they repent and promise to change their ways.

    Quoting the Pope

    Ms McManus was referring to a mass celebrated by the Pope on May 24, 2018 at the Casa Santa Marta in Vatican City.

    According to her, Pope Francis took aim at "wage theft" — although a report published on the Vatican's official news portal shows those weren't his exact words:

    "Even here in Italy people are left without a job in order to preserve capital investments. This goes against the second commandment, so: 'Woe to you', Jesus warns. Woe to you who exploit others and their work by evading taxes, not contributing to their pension funds, and not giving them paid vacation. Woe to you!... If you don't pay, your injustice is a mortal sin."

    The Holy See press office is yet to publish the full transcript in English.

    Is it wage theft?

    Two legal experts told Fact Check there was no agreed legal definition for wage theft.

    But, they said, broadly speaking it refers to employer non-payment of, or non-compliance with, employees' legal monetary entitlements.

    In Australia, employers must pay into their employees' superannuation accounts, or what the Pope called "pension funds".

    They must also provide employees with paid leave or, in the case of casual staff, pay them a higher hourly rate to compensate for their lack of leave entitlements.

    Dr Stephen Clibborn, a law lecturer with Sydney University's Business School, told Fact Check that wage theft included a range of illegal activities.

    "So that could be not paying the award or national minimum wage, their contracted wages, overtime, penalty rates; not paying for all the hours worked; not paying superannuation; unauthorised deductions, misclassification of independent contractors."

    Professor Anthony Forsyth, an industrial relations law expert at RMIT University, agreed that most of what the Pope referred to fell within the scope of wage theft.

    "I understand wage theft to include any evasion of payment-related legal obligations to employees, thus picking up non-contributions to pension/superannuation funds and not according employees their leave entitlements."

    But it would not extend to "evading taxes", he said, because taxes were owed to the government.

    Acts of bad faith

    What counts as wage theft also depends on a boss's motivations.

    Dr Clibborn told Fact Check the term wage theft — as opposed to less emotive terms such as underpayment or non-compliance — should be used with caution.

    That's because in criminal law, he said, theft requires some kind of intent, so the term can suggest employers are "deliberately doing it rather than just making a mistake".

    Intent is a critical feature of laws proposed by the Victorian Labor Government to criminalise wage theft, which would cover employers who "deliberately" withhold wages, superannuation or other employee entitlements.

    The distinction between "underpayment" and "outright wage theft" is also made by the Senate's 2017 inquiry into corporate avoidance of workplace laws.

    Professor Forsyth told Fact Check he did not regard honest mistakes as wage theft.

    In any event, Dr Clibborn said the research shows most cases of legal non-compliance are "not just a case of employers misunderstanding or accidentally underpaying".

    What makes a sin mortal?

    When the Pope warned bosses who exploit their workers that "your injustice is a mortal sin", he was invoking a specifically Catholic concept.

    Professor Constant Mews, director of Monash University's Centre for Religious Studies, told Fact Check: "The scripture doesn't use the phrase mortal sin. But the phrase mortal is a way of distinguishing the serious from the not-so-serious."

    As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, to qualify as mortal, a sin must meet three criteria.

    First, it must concern a "grave matter":

    Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and your mother."

    And, like wage theft, the action requires the sinner's full knowledge and deliberate consent.

    So, from a spiritual perspective, there's no problem with an employer "not contributing to their [workers'] pension funds" or "not giving them paid vacation" if it's an honest error.

    But that's not the case for bosses who intentionally short-change their staff.

    In fact, according to the Bible, Jesus took a dim view of exactly these people:

    "The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty." (James 5:4)

    As the Catechism points out, the problem for employers is their lack of "charity":

    "Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him."

    Professor Mews explained that charity — or, in the traditional language of the church, caritas — translates not to philanthropy but to "selfless love".

    This, he told Fact Check, is the foundational virtue in Christian ethics.

    Echoing this view is Dr Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer, a researcher with the Australian Catholic University's Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry.

    He told Fact Check that charity was a love of God: "Mortal sin is incompatible with a life of charity, and therefore it separates us from God in a definitive way."

    "Unless that separation is repaired," he said, "you're on the outside".

    Is punishment "eternal"?

    In her tweet, The ACTU's Ms McManus claimed that mortal sin attracted "eternal punishment".

    It's a claim backed up by the Catechism:

    "If [a mortal sin] is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell".

    "[Committing a mortal sin] destroys in us the charity without which eternal beatitude is impossible. Unrepented, it brings eternal death."

    But there are some exemptions. For one thing, the voluntary nature of the sin can be reduced by the "promptings of feelings and passions" or by "external pressures or pathological disorders".

    Failing that, Dr Jacobs-Vandegeer told Fact Check, there is another way around it.

    "The fix has to do with confession," he said.

    "It has to do with feeling really sorry for what you've done.

    "You have to confess that and you have to commit yourself to not doing it again, and this could involve some form of making amends."


    Principal researcher: David Campbell

    factcheck@rmit.edu.au

    Sources

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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