“Tragically, the growing scourge of man’s exploitation by man gravely damages the life of communion and our calling to forge interpersonal relations marked by respect, justice and love,” writes Pope Francis in his Jan. 1 World Day of Peace Message.
But as the message’s title —“No Longer Slaves, but Brothers and Sisters” — indicates, the pope is reminding us of the Good News that Jesus has freed us from the slavery of personal sin and the structures of societal sin, and invites us to accept this divine freedom, to live it out in our lives, and to share it with all people.
However, instead of offering freedom and fraternity, the exploitation of countless human beings by many who hold power, “leads to contempt for the fundamental rights of others and to the suppression of their freedom and dignity,” laments the pope.
He writes that millions of people today — children, women and men of all ages — are forced to live in slave-like conditions.
“I think of the many men and women laborers, including minors, subjugated in different sectors, whether formally or informally, in domestic or agricultural workplaces, or in the manufacturing or mining industry.”
The 2010 West Virginia Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion, which killed 29 Massey Energy miners, is a clear example of what Pope Francis is talking about here.
According to National Public Radio, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel charged that “Massey exhibited a corporate mentality that placed the drive to produce coal above worker safety.”
Expressing his deep sympathy for the hardships faced by migrants Francis writes, “In a particular way, I think of those among them who, upon arriving at their destination after a grueling journey marked by fear and insecurity, are detained in at times inhumane conditions.”
Consider how the pope’s words accurately apply to the thousands of unaccompanied children who have taken the dangerous journey to the U.S. to escape drug and gang violence in parts of Central America. Many of these children are detained for weeks in large cage-like conditions, while they face the threat of being deported back to the dangerous conditions they fled.
Pope Francis adds, “States must ensure that their own legislation truly respects the dignity of the human person in the areas of migration, employment, adoption, the movement of businesses offshore and the sale of items produced by slave labor.”
Many corporations like Wal-Mart reap huge financial benefits from merchandise made for them by desperately poor people laboring long hours, in unhealthy work conditions, for pennies an hour.
There is an excellent remedy for this use of what the pope calls “slave labor.”
If reintroduced and passed by Congress, the “Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act,” would prohibit the import, export or sale of products that violate the International Labor Organization’s standards — which prohibit child labor, and guarantee workers’ rights to safe working conditions, to collective bargaining and protection against forced labor. The Act is supported by the highly reputable “Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights” (http://www.globallabourrights.org/). It would also provide transparent corporate disclosure — enabling labor rights organizations to inspect factories producing products for wealthy retailers.
Pope Francis pulls much of his message together in this one powerful sentence: “Every person ought to have the awareness that purchasing is always a moral — and not simply an economic — act.”
Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist.