Monday, May 25

The Dignity of Work and the Rights of the Worker

Among the basic rights of labor that Catholic Social Thought (CST) has proposed is a just wage. What is meant by a just wage? What are the rights of workers? The modern social justice movement was formulated in an age of industrial labor and agricultural work, which began with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum or On the Condition of Labor (1891). This movement has since grown, and was in part the basis for the United Nation’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). Now, the twenty-third “right” put forth in this document is worker’s rights. Every individual, the UDHR argues, has the right to work, the right to a just or fair wage for their work, and the right to join a trade union. Each of these rights is supported and present in the Catholic tradition.

Another question that must be asked is, what can CST say to people working in a postindustrial economy, whether we call it an “informational society” or “service economy”? A service economy is “an economic system or sector based on buying and selling of services,”[1] whereas an informational society is “a term for a society in which the creation, distribution, and manipulation of information has become the most significant economic and cultural activity... the machine tools of the Information Society are computers and telecommunications, rather than lathes or ploughs.”[2] Using these definitions, how would a service economy and informational society approach trade unions, immigration, just wages and the treatment of workers? We will explore these issues as well as outlining a Biblical theology of workers, worker’s rights and a case study concerning migrant workers.   

Biblical Considerations for Workers
Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have an abundance of material relating to work and workers. For example, the Hebrew Bible contains several references to workers and various professions. We read of “the doctor, the pharmacist, the craftsman or artist, the blacksmith... the potter, the farmer, the scholar, the sailor, the builder, the musician, the shepherd, and the fisherman.”[3] Further, in the New Testament, Jesus refers through his parables to human work several times, “that of the shepherd, the farmer, the doctor, the sower, the householder, the servant, the steward, the fisherman, the merchant, the labourer. He also speaks of the various form of women's work. He compares the apostolate to the manual work of harvesters or fishermen. He refers to the work of scholars too.”[4] Traditionally, the authors of the corpus of Scripture included shepherds, fishermen, philosophers, tent-makers and others.

The above examples are helpful in outlining the range of work seen in sacred Scripture.
On a theological level, the first “work” is seen in the act of creation in Genesis 1. In the text, God creates over a period of six days, and “rests” on the seventh day. Pope John Paul II pointed out in his encyclical Laborum Exercens that this was the first “gospel of work,” and that “it teaches that man ought to imitate God, his Creator, in working, because man alone has the unique characteristic of likeness to God.”[5] The basis for this “gospel of work” is therefore not necessarily the work being done but the person doing the work - who has inherent dignity.

The labors of Christ are also a filter for this “gospel of work.” For most of his life, Jesus grew up in Nazareth as a craftsman (the Greek tekton meaning carpenter or stonemason). He likely spent the majority of his time growing up learning to do service for others in the community and working with his hands. On a basic level, the Church would say that Jesus worked, and therefore so should we. This is where the notion of sub-creation comes in. Famous author and linguist J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings) wrote an essay title On Fairy Stories, in which he proposed that humans are by nature mimetic, insofar as they imitate the Creator in their works. When a human makes beautiful artwork, creates masterful poetry, composes fruitful prose, builds a house, or sings a song, there is a creative act. This creative act is called “sub-creation” by Tolkien, because as beings made in the imago dei, we are engaging in the creative work of God. We may use this doctrine of sub-creation as a basis for the dignity of human work. Each act of work is an engagement with the original creative work of God, so that in a very real way, they are also participating in the work of God. This is one of the major reasons that the Church upholds the rights of workers.

Worker’s Rights and the Post-Industrial Economy
To return to the aforementioned question, what can CST say to people working in an informational society or a service economy? The Church holds that work is “a fundamental dimension of man's existence on earth. She is confirmed in this conviction by considering the whole heritage of the many sciences devoted to man: anthropology, palaeontology, history, sociology, psychology and so on; they all seem to bear witness to this reality in an irrefutable way.”[6] Further, “the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help to guide the above-mentioned changes so as to ensure authentic progress by man and society.”[7] In the past, the Church had spoken out against theological heresies such as Arianism, Modalism, Nestorianism and many others. But with the advent of Pope Leo XIII’s famous encyclical, the CST movement began to speak out against the socio-economic “heresies” of injustice and oppression.[8]

In his encyclical, Pope Leo XIII also addressed the treatment of employers and employees. When speaking to the role of the employer and employee he writes:
Of these duties, the following bind the proletarian and the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss. The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers - that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age.[9]

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that there are many abuses in the different areas of work around the globe. Some of these abuses are immediately apparent, as the very
work involved is considered unjust: those involved in human trafficking - and thereby also the pornography industry, sex slavery and child labor - those involved in migrant farm work, and so on. This is one of the reasons that trade unions developed. Unions are rather similar to the guilds of artisans in medieval times, as people were brought together who belonged to the same craft.[10] But today, a union is different from a guild in the sense that the industrial workers in this service economy in relation to the owners, manufacturers or the entrepreneurs.[11] Put another way, unions are generally helpful as they provide a way for employers and employees to effect change. There are also other benefits of worker’s unions - societies, foundations and other organizations that have been set up to help widows, young children and those who are more advanced in their age.[12] Union workers see this as a result of the right to gather together as well as the rights of workers involved in just wages and fair treatment.

The “right to rest” is another important piece seen in the Catholic tradition. It is rooted in Genesis 1 and Exodus 20, where God creates the cosmos over a span of six days, and thus uses this a basis for the seven-day week. If someone is to receive fair treatment, argues Pope Leo XIII, they should also receive their Sabbath day rest,[13] “and also a longer period of rest, namely the holiday or vacation taken once a year or possibly in several shorter periods during the year.”[14] As human beings, we naturally can only do so much work before we grow weary and need to rest and recuperate. We are often more effective and efficient at our jobs if we are allowed the opportunity to rest, take a break, and perhaps a brief sabbatical or vacation.

A third and final consideration in the discussion on workers and their rights is the topic of immigration and emigration. Emigration is leaving one country for another, but immigration is coming into another country to live. The Church holds that man has the right to leave his home as well as the right to return, in order to find a better life.[15] The Church also holds that someone coming to work from another country should not become a way for others to have any sort of financial or social exploitation, and certainly not sexual. The social doctrine of the Church would say that the “value of work should be measured by the same standard and not according to the difference in nationality, religion or race.”[16] Unfortunately, however, there are individuals whose rights have been wholly violated. They have been socially and financially exploited, earned unjust wages - if any - and also have been abused by those who employ them. One example of this unfair and unjust treatment is the tomato plantations in Florida, Publix and their migrant workers.

Application and Analysis: Publix and Migrant Workers
The documentary film Food Chains by Sanjay Rawl (2014) shows these migrant workers in Immokalee, Florida. Each migrant worker takes a bus to a tomato plantation. Arriving at 7:30am, they have to wait several hours until the dew is gone from the plants. As one worker said, “One of the hardest things is the realization of how little you matter to the people you are working for... agriculture is in many ways the background of America. And when you have a background as big as agriculture, you’ve got to pay attention to the labor force.” For the most part, the history of farm labor in the United States is a history of exploitation. The farm workers throughout U.S. history have been treated as if they were not human beings. Consider what happened with the cotton plantations in the early 1800s and the African American slave labor. Every time some buys fresh fruits and vegetables, most people have no idea that they are helping to perpetuate the slave labor system.

The stores that receive these fresh fruits and vegetables are responsible for how much they are priced, what kind of fruit or vegetable is produced (organic vs. non-organic), the farms - and finally, how much money is left to pay workers at the bottom of the supply chain. But as the documentary reveals, all the workers who pick this produce live below the poverty line. Now, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a small group of migrant farm workers dedicated to farm workers who earn unjust wages. The CIW’s Fair Food Programme demands that the companies who rely on farm workers acknowledge those farm workers and do two things: pay workers an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes they pick, and help eliminate abuse in the fields. The CIW’s latest campaign - as aforementioned - is against Publix. Publix is the largest distributor of tomatoes in Florida, and one of the highest grossing Supermarket Chains in the world. But Publix, even after the documentary, has refused to meet with the CIW or discuss the Fair Food Programme.

In the 1960s, in Immokalee, Edward Murrow from CBS did a television segment on migrant workers, showing how they were rounded up in buses and trafficked to the farms. This program was called “Harvest of Shame”. This was broadcast at a time when America was in a time of great prosperity. So the television program came as a bit of a jolt to many. These workers were uneducated, underfed, and overworked. So it seems that this kind of exploitation has been going on for several decades.

Today, in many ways, it is the consumers who are creating poverty in areas like Immokalee. Publix has become so popular in Florida that 3 out of 4 people live within two miles of a Publix supermarket - in fact, my mother works at a Publix store. Publix has a great reputation for taking care of its workers and its customers, and they often tend to have very friendly customer service. In the mid-1900s, in California, Cesar Chavez, a farm worker, realized that by organizing unions and public events, the migrant farm workers could have a voice. But there was a lot of hostility against the union. But during the 1980s, the governor of California made it more difficult for farm workers to organize. Similar occurrences have transpired in Florida. In reality, workers in any supply chain around the world continue to struggle for basic human rights, particularly those explained in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. When people in poverty want to cry out for their own basic rights, they already feel beaten down in a class system that has tried to silence their voice.

In fact, some of these abuses also come in the form of more than just unfair wages. Consider, for example, the comments from a woman named Claudia, who, while working in fields, said that her supervisor said some very vulgar things to her, “One time, my zipper was down, and he told me to zip it because he could see my vagina and he would want it if he saw it.” Another woman mentioned an incident in which the supervisor reached through her car window and reached his hand between her legs. For a woman to voice the abuses is extremely important, which is why we need a better system of justice. Sexual abuse cannot be tolerated, and is an absolute blow to human dignity. This is one of the reasons that in 2008, a U.S. Senate Hearing was held to give farmworkers a voice from the Florida tomato fields. Workers had been beaten, sexually abused, chained to a pole, kept in debt, and forced them to work for free.

Now, a number of companies have supported these farm workers over the past few years since the documentary was made, including McDonalds, Chipotle’s, Burger King, Subway, and Trader Joe’s. Since its beginning, the Fair Food Programme has generated over $11 million in pennies for its workers, and has eliminated slavery on the farms that work with the CIW. Further,it has given woman a place to speak without fear of retribution. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. And others have also helped join in the efforts to not leave our poor brothers and sisters behind, and notably, on January 16th, 2014, Walmart agreed to join the CIW. So there is indeed definitely movement in the right direction, but more must continue to be done to defend the rights of workers.

One of the ways to help these and other workers is to look for the “fair food” label on different products, such as the tomatoes. Also, the Alliance for Fair Food has many worker and activist fair food groups. Some of these are also student-run, so one way for students to get involved is to start a group on their local campus dedicated to fair foods, sustainability or other such topics. One may also join a protest, or a local action movement. In my own life, I will continue to be more conscious of where I purchase my produce, where this produce is coming from, and do what I can to find out information about the workers. The difficulty is that this information is not always readily available nor is it made public, hence why documentaries such as Food Chains are filmed, and must continue to be filmed and produced.

The dignity of the human person is the core of CST. As a result, the dignity of work engaged in by a human person is also to be upheld and defended. A commitment to justice must be linked with commitment to peace.[17] We may see just wages as proper compensation for the time, energy, effort and productivity of a worker. We may see some of the benefits of a service economy and informational society as being the unions for workers, the foundations, organizations and societies that help the husbands, wives and children of workers. We may also see this “gospel of work” as being lived out by those who engage in “sub-creation,” or rather, the creative act of work just as God did. As such, this also calls for a period of rest for each worker, as God rested on the seventh day.

There are many other situations which exist similar to those described in Food Chains. Some of these migrant workers come as a result of poor living conditions in their own countries, and so come to the U.S. with the hope of a better life. However, they get caught up in work that pays unjust wages and results in poor treatment of the employees. At times, this is caused by the immediate employer. Other times, this is caused by employers of the employers, such as the Supermarkets. To be sure, CST accounts for just wages and the treatment of human dignity as part of the rights of workers. But as previously described, these are human rights also defended by the United Nations in their UDHR. The rights of workers and dignity of the worker are key to our global community, as work is what keeps the cogs of the economy, social life and politics in motion. Thus, the message here should impel and empower us to go out and defend these rights, and seek justice for those suffering from injustice - to defend the basic human rights entitled to each person.

[1] "service economy."'s 21st Century Lexicon., LLC. 07 Apr. 2015. [1]2 "What Is Information Society?" WhatIs. TechTarget, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.
[3] Leo XIII, Pope. Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of Labor. 1891. 26.
[4] John Paul II, Pope. Laborum Exercens: Through Work. 1981. 26.
[5] Ibid., 25.
[6] Ibid., 4.
[7] Ibid., 1.
[8] Rerum Novarum 2.
[9] Ibid., 20.
[10] Laborum Exercens 20.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Rerum Novarum 48.
[13] Seventh Day Adventists would hold the Sabbath on Saturday, as would Jews. In Islam, Friday is considered the holy day, and in some sects of Buddhism, it is on Tuesday or Wednesday.
[14] Laborum Exercens 19.
[15] Ibid., 23.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 2.

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