On the Condition of Workers

What have we done?

These last few weeks have been a time of tremendous excitement and activity for all of us. We have prepared for the coming of the Christ child by shopping, wrapping, cooking and welcoming family and friends into our home. Though we promise ourselves every year that next year will be different, we always put too much into too small of a time period, and when all is done, we have a feeling of loss because so much is left undone. Christmas cards were not sent, friends were over looked and presence to one another just never happened.
Our schedules are now beginning to return to normal, and maybe we can look back on what we have done. In this case, I am not talking about how many folks came and visited us, or how many family members we welcomed. Rather, we can begin to look through all the things we bought, and ask how have we made real our Church's teaching of justice.
This point was driven home to me when I read how Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, of Newark , New Jersey, signed an agreement with the United States Department of Labor. Through their cooperative efforts, the uniforms made for the children who attend the diocesan schools will be "sweat-free." That is, they would not be made in garment factories that are considered sweat shops by U.S. labor standards. As William Bole relates in his article in the December 21, 1997 issue of Our Sunday Visitor:
"The sweatshops, once defining of cruel capitalism, have resurfaced in the industrial backwaters of South Asia, Central America - and even places like Newark, N.J., where Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick is making his stand.
"In Newark, Catholic schoolchildren can be found frolicking in schoolyards just blocks away form back-alley factories where immigrants labor for sub-minimum wages. The students also wear uniforms that - for all the archbishop knows - might be produced in some of those factories. Archbishop McCarrick sees something wrong with this picture, and has undertaken an unusual measure that he considers an act of fidelity to the Church's social doctrine.
"The archbishop has pledged to make the 1.5-million-member archdiocese free of goods made in sweatshops, in northern New Jersey or anywhere else."
The stand that Archbishop McCarrick is taking is not something that he himself has dreamed up. Rather, he is bringing to bear over one hundred years of Catholic social teaching in a particular concrete case. The Catholic Church has always been a herald to the world stressing the importance of work and the moral obligation which we Catholics have of ensuring that when a person works that he or she receives a just wage.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church a just wage is not a survival wage. That is a wage that is sufficient so that the worker may return to work the next day. Rather, it is a wage that allows a worker and his or her family to maintain a minimum of human dignity. Paragraph 2434 of the Catechism states:
"A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. 'Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified likelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good.' Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages."
So as all those new clothes that were received at Christmas go into the washer, before you throw them in, take a moment and check the label. Where was it made? In a report from the National Labor Committee, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and J.C. Penny are named as examples of companies who use the Chentex Factory in Nicaragua. This Taiwanese-owned factory pays less than a survival wage.
The committee reports that the Chentex Garment Factory pays its sewers a base wage of 19 cents an hour. The average wage is 23 cents an hour, or $1.84 a day. This works out to be $11.04 a week and $574.08 a year. Though it may be true that it is less expensive to live in Nicaragua, none the less, it is not possible to live on so little.
When we look at the labels on the toys from China, the shoes from Vietnam or the clothes from Central America, we must ask ourselves: "What have we done?" Have we participated in a process that has oppressed workers, robbed children of their youth or stolen the labor prisoners so that we can have a "value". Or have we consciously shopped to avoid participation in such exploitations and sins.
As more and more manufacturing moves to countries with weaker labor and safety laws, the safeguards that exist to protect workers will not be able to monitor and to enforce safe working conditions in these new facilities. No longer will we be able to depend on the Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Labor Relations Board to guarantee fairness. The Catholic moral responsibility, though, to treat all brothers and sisters justly, will remain. Next year, check the tag while the item is still in the store. Then one will not have to confess one's Advent shopping practices after Christmas.