Stop Throwing Away Low-Wage Workers

Pope Francis weighs in on workers’ dignity and the global economy

Pope Francis wears a hard hat he received from a miner during Mass the outside Shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria in Sardinia. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
Pope Francis wears a hard hat he received from a miner during Mass the outside Shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria in Sardinia. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Many advocates for economic justice were struck by Pope Francis’ candid remarks last month about our global economic system and the “idol” of money.

The pope’s impromptu comments came after a meeting with unemployed workers in Cagliari, Sardinia (an island off the coast of Italy), who shared their stories of struggle. Francis discarded his prepared speech and let the Spirit lead his remarks for nearly 20 minutes.

“It is not a problem of Italy and Europe,” he said of an economic system that marginalizes the poor and vulnerable. “It is the consequence of a world choice, of an economic system that brings about this tragedy, an economic system that has at its center an idol which is called money.”

Francis’ remarks were a solemn reminder that our current economic system does not reflect our values as Christians. All God’s children deserve work, and to work with dignity. We deserve to be compensated fairly for an honest day’s work. Work should provide the means for a roof over our head and food on our table.

“Throwaway culture”

We are witness to a great shift in employment practices here in the United States. The wealthy prey on the poor and unemployed. According to a 2012 study from the National Employment Law Project, in the Great Recession, 60 percent of the jobs that disappeared were good middle-class jobs; 21 percent were low-wage jobs. Now, in the recovery, 58 percent of the jobs created have been low-wage jobs, where workers are treated as cogs, not people. (Middle-class jobs account for less than a quarter of those created.)
These employment norms are rooted in the same “throwaway culture” Pope Francis has criticized:

“A throwaway culture has been installed. We throw away grandparents, and we throw away young people. We have to say ‘no’ to this throwaway culture. We want a just system that helps everyone.”

We must resolve to stop throwing away low-wage workers. We need to create jobs that make all work just. As Christians we are called to work toward an economy that lifts up God’s people.

“We don’t want this globalized economic system, which does us so much harm,” Francis said, underscoring that people, rather than money, should be at the center of the economic system.

Listening to the poor in our communities

Just as Pope Francis listened to the stories of unemployed workers in Cagliari living under the shadow of the great wealth of a few, Catholics and people of faith have the opportunity to follow his lead and listen to those living in poverty in our own communities.

Right here in the United States, Wal-Mart workers are preparing for a big day of action November 29, Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving). Wal-Mart workers in our communities face some of the same daily concerns the Sardinians highlighted for Pope Francis. They are often forced to choose between paying rent and eating dinner. They are paid poverty wages and work unpredictable schedules, impeding their ability to pick up a second job for supplemental income. When they speak up, management responds with retaliation and intimidation.

Just as Pope Francis listened to the stories of unemployed workers in Cagliari living under the shadow of the great wealth of a few, Catholics and people of faith have the opportunity to follow his lead and listen to those living in poverty in our own communities.

These workers are standing up for a voice and respect on the job, not to mention a paycheck that lifts them out of poverty. At Interfaith Worker Justice, we are connecting parishes, congregations and local organizations to Wal-Mart workers living in their communities.

I can understand why the Spirit called Pope Francis to abandon his prepared remarks and speak from the heart about the economy. Last June, I joined more than 100 workers who bravely walked off their jobs and headed to Bentonville, Arkansas, to join executives and shareholders at Wal-Mart’s annual meeting. These workers testified about poor pay and working conditions. They asked executives to change the “throwaway culture” of its own stores across the country.

During the month of October, we have the opportunity to engage in dialogue with brave workers like Carlton. Carlton, a former Wal-Mart worker from Southern California, told me “Wal-Mart’s ‘open door’ policy is broken.” It claims its policy allows associates to bring suggestions or concerns about workers or the company to any manager without fear of retaliation. Carlton was fired after speaking out to his manager about his problems with Wal-Mart.

“Where there is no work, there is no dignity,” Francis said to the workers in Cagliari — and to all of us. But it’s important to remember that where there is work rooted in exploitation, intimidation and quarterly profits, it is also hard to find dignity.

Pope Francis asked God to “give us work and teach us to fight for work.” Let us ask God to also give us good jobs and fight for an economic system that is focused on people.

I invite you to join us this month as we listen to brave Wal-Mart workers tell their stories of struggle, survival and community building. Host a worker, be moved to follow the Spirit, and stand with workers for a better workplace, a better corporation and a better economy.


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