May kicks off with International Workers’ Day on the feast of St Joseph the Worker, an important anniversary in Catholic Social Teaching which started with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 on the condition of the working classes. It called for some easing of "The misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class”. RN#3. It supported the rights of labor to form unions, rejected socialism and unrestricted capitalism, while affirming the right to private property.
Rerum Novarum’s principles of dignity for the worker are echoed in subsequent encyclicals including Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra (1961) 70 years later.
Sandie Cornish describes Mater et Magistra’s key focus this way: “In the post World War II period international relationships were growing, technology was advancing rapidly, and the world was becoming more interdependent. John XXIII saw poverty and inequality as international questions requiring the solidarity of the whole human family.” (See social-spirituality.net for more of Sandie Cornish’s analysis of Catholic Social Teaching documents).
John XXIII’s concern about growing inequality in 1961 is even more relevant today as workers struggle to put food on the table. The suppression of unions in Australia and New Zealand, Asia and the Pacific particularly, means workers’ collective voice has been muffled by the much stronger claims of the capitalist profit motive. The buyer of the New Zealand merino clothing enterprise, Icebreaker, is reported to have been caught up in several instances of bad worker treatment in Asian factories. In one case, “360 Cambodian women collapsed in a Cambodian factory supplying to VF Corp, Nike, Puma and Asics. An investigation found the women worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, in temperatures of 37C and with inadequate food”. Other cases are reported below.
A key principle of Catholic social teaching is that of the common good – if one person is treated badly, everybody suffers. If one person’s dignity is undermined, so is that of the whole of humanity including the managers whose behaviour is seen to be lacking in compassion.
How can we, as followers of Christ, work to improve the conditions for workers in our respective countries, cities and towns? Can we find specific instances of workplaces where workers are badly treated? What might our next step be if we were to investigate this as a group, calling for workers to be accorded the dignity that is their right as human beings?