Monday, May 03, 2010


While Labor Day is celebrated in the US on the first Monday of September, most of the world celebrates May 1 as the Day of the Worker. What is ironic is that the celebration of international workers day has its origins in the Haymarket Square massacre in Chicago in 1886.

As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I spent Labor Day with 12 campesinos in a workshop on Catholic Social Thought. One of the themes we treated was work.

I began the section on work with an activity. We stood in a circle and each person had to mime an activity from their daily labor. It was fascinating to see them mime planting, hoeing, sweeping, making tortillas, sawing, and more.

I then asked them what work they liked to do. One young woman told us she liked to sweep because she liked to have a clean house. Another told us she liked to make bread which she sells.

What I found refreshing was that they liked their work. They enjoyed basic manual labor, the daily tasks to sustain their lives.

When asked why they worked, the answers included:
  • If you don’t work, you don’t eat.
  • To entertain ourselves.
  • To relieve stress
  • To maintain the family
  • Because I like to be able to buy what I want, to have my own things
  • To serve
  • To earn some money
  • It’s an obligation.
In many ways their responses reflected what the US bishops had written in their 1986 pastoral, Economic Justice for All, about the significance of work (which comes also from Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens):
All work has a threefold moral significance. First, it is a principal way that people exercise the distinctive human capacity for self-expression and self-realization. Second, it is the ordinary way for human beings to fulfill their material needs. Finally, work enables people to contribute to the well-being of the larger community. Work is not only for oneself. It is for one's family, for the nation, and indeed for the benefit of the entire human family.
Economic Justice for All, # 97, italics mine
We talked a bit about the ideal of work – how it is sharing in the creation of God. But we also discussed how work can be degrading. Here the list was long – and revealing.
  • Salaries are insufficient for a decent life.
  • There aren’t enough sources of work.
  • It’s hard to find stable, ongoing work.
  • Workers are looked down on.
  • Mistreatment
  • Violation of human rights, including the right to form unions.
  • Agricultural products don’t get a good price
  • There are not good markets for campesinos
  • The middle men buy products at a low price
  • Inputs (like fertilizer and seeds) are expensive
  • At times people are not paid on time
I asked about the maquilas, the clothing and other piece-work factories in places like San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. One person told me how the workers were either fired or docked pay if they didn’t participate in the marches last year of the “white shirts,” the marches for “peace and democracy,” which were really marches in support of the coup. And then he told how women in some factories of given birth control shots and how women were forced to have pregnancy tests in order to get a job. (The companies don’t want to pay for pregnancy leave, I was told.)

For me, the contrast between the satisfaction these people derived from their work and the grand injustices workers suffer is stunning – and, of course, unjust!

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