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Encyclicals Indict Greed of Companies: Mexicans not Paid Living Wage in U.S. Maquiladoras

Andrew Wright will soon be married to Blossom Mueller, fellow Catholic Worker. They will begin their family life by making the retreat which Fr. Hugo gave so often to Dorothy Day, as part of their honeymoon.

As more immigrants arrive each day with the dusty, greasy clothes on their backs I am reminded of what brings them here. Recently, a 72-year-old gentleman from Mexico came across the border looking for work. He has been coming since he was 20, mostly doing yard work in California. Now that his children are grown and his wife has passed on, he comes for a few months a year to be able to support himself. The need to make ends meet in Mexico and Central America makes the journey imperative.

In the Business section of the Houston Chronicle (HC) over the past several months, no less than four articles boldly proclaim the economic advantages gained by companies that have moved South of the border. In Saltillo, Mexico, General Motors trucks are built as well or better than they are in Michigan. In the U.S. a worker gets $120 per day on the assembly line, in Saltillo, $6 per day (April 29, 1998, HC). Interestingly a $6 daily wage is enough for the bare essentials, beans are 85 cents a kilo; but it will not buy a GM truck. In another article touting the Delphi (a subsidiary of GM) car parts maquiladoras at the border, the daily wage is $8-$12. This wage, according to the article, affords food and a corrugated metal shack without plumbing for a family of four (July 2, 1998, HC). In Short, the Houston Chronicle exposes that Mexicans who make cars for our consumption are not paid a living wage.

I’ve got my own ideas of how those of us consuming (at a conservative estimate the U.S. population which is 4% of the world’s, consumes 25% of the world’s resources) and controlling capital (through investment and ownership) should act, in order to assure those who make what we consume get a living wage. However, I don’t trust my wisdom any more than I trust the “wisdom” of NAFTA or our special interest-directed Congress.

Two of the Church’s social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (1891, Pope Leo XIII) and its fruit, Quadragesimo Anno (1931, Pope Pius XI) are as pertinent today as ever. While they have been cited for their critique of socialism and communism, they also specifically address our current system of capitalism. Notably, they provide guidelines of how capital and labor are to interrelate. In addition, Quadragesimo Anno describes, prophetically, today’s global economy and ways to correct the injustices and lack of personal charity. These encyclicals have been criticized as utopian, but they are no more so than a repentant sinner turning back home to the loving Father and begging forgiveness (see Lk 15:11-32).

The most oft repeated and emphasized truth in Rerum Novarum is the common good. The phrase crosses religious and cultural lines like the sunshine. The encyclical articulates that the common good is not an abstract notion of dreamers, but the truth that is realized when we practice our Faith.

Pope Leo XIII reiterates the primacy of the family as the first step to realizing the common good. “Thus we have the family; the ‘society’ of a man’s household; a society limited indeed in numbers, but a true ‘society’ anterior to every kind of state or nation, with rights and duties of its own, totally independent of the commonwealth” (par.9). The love and respect we give, from within and from without, to the family nurtures the individual person which in turn nurtures the State. A change in this order of primacy has grave consequences.

Promoting unjust economic systems is no small part of the violence done to families (not to mention individuals and States). It is for this reason that the Church obligates a living family wage. As Pius XI puts it, “the wage scale must be regulated with a view to the economic welfare of the whole people” (74). This is currently not the practice in much of Mexico and Central America. The stark injustice is spelled out by Leo XIII, “The employer’s great and principal obligation is to give to everyone that which is just…to exercise pressure for the sake of gain, upon the indigent and destitute, and to make one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud anyone of wages that are his due is a crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven (James 5:4). Finally, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workman’s earnings…because his slender means should be sacred in proportion to their scantiness. Were these precepts carefully obeyed and followed would not strife die out and cease?” (17).

The blueprint of the common good is further articulated in the purpose of the State-to protect the interests of all equally because “the poor are members of the national community equal with the rich” (RN 27). This gives special consideration to the poor because while the rich have many means of protection, the poor’s only recourse to justice may be through the State’s protection. The precept certainly excludes government by PAC money. Interestingly, Rerum Novarum advocates the State’s intervention where a living wage is not paid in the interest of justice for all.

The most inspired and challenging instruction given by the encyclicals is that which deals with the relationship between Capital and Labor. The first clear point made by Leo XIII is their interdependence, “Capital cannot do without Labor, nor Labor without Capital” (RN 15). He wisely counsels that the rich and poor need not be hostile to each other. Contrarily, each class has duties to the other with the goal being that all are loved and respected as persons in the one human family. The laborer is bound to give an honest day’s work for his pay. While he is encouraged to organize amongst his fellow workers, he is bound to petition for more just conditions in a civil and non-violent fashion. Employers too may form organizations. An employer is bound to pay the laborer a living wage (RN 34). He is bound to assure the worker is not overworked and has proper time for rest. Finally, “the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for the duties of piety” (RN 16).

A cursory glance at the global market reveals that Labor is largely fulfilling its obligations while Capital is shirking its duties to the point that the common good is buried under the tears, blood, hunger pangs, and feces of a fragmented family living in a corrugated shack. NAFTA permits capital owners to race across national boundaries looking for the cheapest labor source, while the worker is restricted to the confines of his economically depressed country.

As early as 1931 Pope Pius XI proclaimed, “Free competition is dead; economic dictatorship has taken its place” (QA 109). He prophetically paints the present state of affairs in broad, cutting strokes: “immense power and despotic economic domination is concentrated in the hands of a few,…the trustees and directors of invested funds, who administer them at their good pleasure” (105); “This power becomes particularly irresistible when exercised by those who, because they hold and control money, are able also to govern credit and determine its allotment” (106); “The state which should be the supreme arbiter, ruling in kingly fashion far above all party contention, intent only upon justice and the common good, has become instead a slave, bound over to the service of human passion and greed. As regards the relations of peoples among themselves, a double stream has issued forth from this one fountainhead: on the one hand, economic Nationalism or even economic Imperialism; on the other, a not less noxious and detestable Internationalism or international Imperialism in financial affairs, which holds that where a man’s fortune is, there is his country” (109).

Because he describes the state of our country so keenly, I was eager to read the remedy prescribed. At the macro level, Pius XI calls for the mutual cooperation of Labor and Capital guided by right reason and Christian social philosophy. At the personal level, the level at which each of us changes, Quadragesimo Anno treats at length the ruin of souls in modern society as the principle cause of our present disorder.

Lest these ever-relevant encyclicals strike one as antiquated, one need only thoughtfully consider Pope John Paul II’s reflection, Centesimus Annus. Sadly, this document has been used to support the free market capitalism that is practiced today. However, serious study of the document challenges us to re-evaluate how much work towards the common good remains: “In Third World contexts, certain objectives stated by Rerum Novarum remain valid, and, in some cases, still constitute a goal yet to be reached, if man’s work and his very being are not to be reduced to the level of a mere commodity. These objectives include a sufficient wage for the support of the family, social insurance for old age and unemployment, and adequate protection for the conditions of employment” (CA 34). The immigrants we meet each day come from places where most jobs (including, or especially, the maquiladoras of U.S. companies and those of Europe or Asia) lack every single objective enumerated.

Pius XI’s concern for souls has everything to do with our moral behavior in the global market. As has been emphasized repeatedly in this publication, we consume and invest in what folks in the Third World make and mine. We as human beings are dependent on them, and vice versa. John Paul II counsels us to focus more on “being” than on “having.” He says we should never seek to “spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings, and investments” (CA 36).

Lamentably, many of us have a personal dedication to a system of production governed by consumption and investment instead of God’s principles. Dorothy Day condemned the work of those who strategize to increase our consumptive desires: “We are all guilty of concupiscence, but newspapers, radio, television, and battalions of advertising men (woe to that generation) deliberately stimulate our desires, the satisfaction of which so often means the deterioration of the family” (Loaves and Fishes, 74). In addition, it is no coincidence that our stock market is soaring to voluminous heights just as GM trucks, Gap shirts, Compaq computer parts, and Nike shoes and soccer balls are being assembled for pocket change. Participation in the stock market is participation in the capital side of our economic dictatorship.

As such, we are called to withhold support from those companies that do not provide a living wage or respect the human dignity of its workers. In John Paul II’s words: “It is not a matter of the duty of charity alone, that is, the duty to give from one’s ‘abundance,’ and sometimes even out of one’s needs, in order to provide what is essential for the life of a poor person. I am referring to the fact that even the decision to invest in one place rather than another, in one productive sector rather than another, is always a moral and cultural choice” (CA 36). Unless, of course, we worship money and not God.

Pope Pius XI writes it is charity, in its richest sense that creates a “union of hearts and minds.” “Then only will it be possible to unite all in harmonious striving for the common good, when all sections of society have the intimate conviction that they are members of a single family and children of the same Heavenly Father, and further, that they are ‘one body in Christ and every one members one of another,’ so that ‘if one member suffer anything, all members suffer with it.” (QA 137).

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVIII, No. 5, September-October 1998.