A Catholic Convert in Ottawa

Workers’ Rights and Human Dignity

Posted on: July 27, 2015

Browsing at the bookstore ranks high among my favourite things to do. The latest fiction, cookbooks, journals, magazines…I could easily while away an hour or so just looking around. And my favourite spot is the clearance section. I often find great gifts and reads for myself.

One bargain find was A Brief History of Tea: The Extraordinary Story of the World’s Favourite Drink by Roy Moxham, which I’ve finally had a chance to read. I enjoyed learning about the tea production process but was stunned to read about the evolution of the industry in China, India, Sri Lanka and Malawi, with workers tied into long contracts with low pay, poor living conditions, and serious health risks.

Sadly, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same:

  • The April 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh took the lives of more than 1 000 garment industry workers, who’d been told to return to work even after cracks had been discovered in the building.
  • In February 2014, the World Bank was asked to investigate conditions on tea plantations in India’s Assam state. Workers alleged, among other things, that their homes were in poor repair and that they and their families had been denied health care.
  • Over the past year, workers’ rights groups have called attention to labour conditions in Qatar for migrant workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, alleging that workers are not paid and are denied adequate food and water.
  • Last week, the UN Human Rights Committee released a report on human rights in Canada that recommended creating an effective and independent body to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by Canadian companies operating in other countries.

This isn’t just a question of companies’ behaviour and its effect on their corporate image; it’s a question of human dignity.

Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, makes a number of comments about human dignity, including this one:

The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). This shows us the immense dignity of each person….

These days, we’re more likely to look for eco-friendly, organic and natural products, but maybe we don’t give enough consideration to whether the workers who produced a given item receive a fair wage, have decent living conditions, and see their human rights respected. We need to pay more attention to news of human rights violations by companies. And we need to pray and advocate for better working and living conditions for workers, keeping in mind these words that call on us to respect workers’ human dignity:

He who oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth,

or gives to the rich, will only come to want. (Proverbs 22:16*)

“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,

and his upper rooms by injustice;

who makes his neighbour serve him for nothing

and does not give him his wages…” (Jeremiah 22:13)

Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. (James 5:4)

(*Scripture quotes taken from the Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition.)


Food for Thought

(Y)ou do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” ~ James 4:14-15

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