Strong businesses that care about workers as well as profits are essential for a thriving democracy, Pope Francis has told steel workers in Genoa.

Speaking at a struggling factory on Saturday, the Pope said it was from the Genoa port that his father and grandparents had emigrated to Argentina.

He said the “world of work was a priority for the Pope” and lamented that a modern “illness” of the economy was the “progressive transformation of entrepreneurs into speculators”.

The speculator, similar to Jesus’s money-changers, “does not love his company [and] does not love his workers, but sees the company and the workers only as means to a profit”, the Pope said. “When work is weakened, it’s democracy that enters into crisis,” he added.

Pope Francis also warned against the idea of “meritocracy” in the workplace. The idea, he said, takes a positive, “merit”, and “perverts it” by mistaking as merits the “gifts” of talent, education and being born to a family that is not poor.

“Through meritocracy, the new capitalism gives a moral cloak to inequality,” because seeing gifts as merit, it distributes advantages or keeps in places disadvantages accordingly, he said. Under such a system, “the poor person is considered undeserving and, therefore, guilty. And if poverty is the fault of the poor, then the rich are exonerated from doing anything.”

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