By Tony Magliano
Even before COVID-19 struck, countless workers were suffering from economic injustice in numerous ways, such as a very low minimum wage – $7.25 per hour in the U.S. – sweatshop workers in poor countries sewing clothes for name brand companies in rich nations, children laboring in dangerous conditions.
According to the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), garment workers around the world are among the worst affected. During the height of COVID, millions of poor garment workers were fired, and countless others had their hours and wages lowered.
Furthermore, the WRC states that because of the garment industry’s ongoing low wages, most garment workers are not able to save any money, this sad reality combined with the fact that most the governments involved in apparel exporting have very little or no unemployment benefits to help those who have been unfairly fired.
According to the WRC, “The only thing standing between an out-of-work garment worker and immediate poverty for her family are legally mandated severance benefits that most garment workers are due upon termination.” But many workers are being illegally denied some or all of these severance benefits.
WRC’s on the ground investigations reveal that 31 factories in nine countries have fired, and then failed to provide legally earned severance pay, robbing workers of an average of over a $1,000 per person – equaling approximately five months’ wages stolen from each worker.
According to WRC, “Among the brands implicated in these cases are adidas, Amazon, H&H, Inditex, Next, Nike, Target, and Walmart – all companies that have made substantial profits during the pandemic.”
It would be good for people of faith, who are also customers, to contact these companies urging them to stop unjust practices such as those listed above and bargain fairly with their employees. This would be an ideal social justice project for parishes to spearhead.
And in addition to customer pressure, the importance of unions and collective bargaining is indispensable in assuring that workers receive justice from the corporations they labor for.
In their report “What Difference Does a Union Make?” the Center for Global Workers’ Rights (based at Pennsylvania State University) cites as an important example banana production and distribution – which “has been built on a very long history of labor repression, low wages, and union avoidance. Yet, there are also notable cases of successful unionization, collective bargaining and improved conditions of labor.”
In Guatemala, the report states that non-unionized banana “workers earn less than half the hourly pay of unionized workers and work 12 hours per week more. … Non-union are 81 percent more likely to face verbal abuse than union workers.” And the report found that 58 percent of women in non-union packing plants face sexual harassment, compared to eight percent of women at unionized plants. Here is a successful example of unionized workers in their struggle for fairness with AT&T.
The Catholic Church clearly teaches the right of workers to form unions. A powerful example is St. Pope John Paul’s encyclical letter Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), in which he teaches that unions “are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people.”
With boldly prophetic words, St. Pope John Paul II declared: “The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion; production to meet social needs over production for military purposes.”
Tony Magliano (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an internationally syndicated Catholic social justice and peace columnist and speaker. He is not a member of the AUSCP. His point of view is his own and not necessarily that of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests.