[This article was originally published in Emmanuel – July/August 2014 issue.]
Have you ever wondered from where the items on your kitchen table originally came? The average North American table will have items on it from a league of nations. Today as I sat at table enjoying breakfast, I counted a number of items that did not come from the United States: sugar, coffee, bananas, avocados, and mangos, all of which, of course, are imported from places south of the border. The next time you go grocery shopping, notice the nations represented in the produce section alone. It is not only the food we eat, however, that comes from abroad. Did you ever read the names of the countries written on the labels on your clothes? Unless you sew your own clothing, you may be surprised to find a number of nations represented in your closet as well; countries like Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, or the Dominican Republic, among others.
More than food and clothing, however, are provided for us by workers from other nations. While serving as a missionary in El Salvador some years ago, I met a florist from a small Ohio town. He was in El Salvador to purchase poinsettias to sell for the upcoming Christmas season. I asked him why he was there buying poinsettias when they grow like wild in Texas, and, because Texas is half way between Ohio and El Salvador, he would surely save on travel and transportation costs. He explained that, given the low cost of labor in El Salvador, he had no other choice than to purchase from where his competition was purchasing, in order to keep his own shop open with a reasonable profit. Before leaving El Salvador with his poinsettias, he kindly slipped us a $100 bill for our work with the poor.
The Human Cost of Poverty
We used the donation to purchase school supplies and uniforms for children whose parents could not afford them. Their parents worked hard to provide for them, and some parents even worked at greenhouses that grew poinsettias and other flowering plants for American florists. These parents had to take a bus to and from work, which cost them about two dollars round-trip. After earning only three dollars a day for their labor, they had just a dollar left over after transportation costs, and that dollar went to purchase rice and beans one day and cornmeal the next, those simple foods comprising their daily diet, while they also tried to put aside each week some money for the monthly rent, since they did not own the simple, mud and stick, single-room dwelling which they made their “home.” Yet, despite long, often ten-hour or more work days, they did not earn enough to be able to buy their children even the basics for school.
The usual wage for the workers whose labor provides so much for us remains even today astonishingly low. With Mexican currency presently devalued at 13 pesos to one U.S. dollar, wage-earners in Mexico now average the equivalent of five U.S. dollars a day, down from eight dollars ten years ago. For Salvadorans, the average wage is still around three dollars a day for agricultural workers, six for textile workers. The low wages given by the multinational companies that hire and exploit the labor of the developing world hinder poorer countries from any real economic growth. Without robust worker wages, there is no strong tax base, and without a strong tax base, a developing nation cannot provide for its citizens the sort of things that we in the developed world enjoy and take for granted, such as good schools, highly educated teachers, well-constructed bridges, potable water, paved roads, adequate health care, or social security.
In the small town of El Salvador where I used to live, there was a little boy, Armando, who drowned in a flash flood while walking home from school one day—there was no bridge over the little stream by his school. The stream, which normally was narrow and shallow enough to step over, occasionally swelled with runoff from the nearby mountains after a heavy rain, and on that particular day, it had rained all morning, turning the usually small stream into a raging torrent that swept the little boy’s body almost to the ocean some five miles away.
Fed and nourished by the greatest feast of all, the Eucharist, we cannot remain indifferent to the hunger and misery of others without risk of becoming hypocrites.
In a country like our own with a strong tax base, that little boy would have never drowned; a bridge would have already been constructed by the local government. Unfortunately, in countries like El Salvador with low wages, such projects are rare because there is not enough tax revenue to pay for them. Without a strong tax base, there is little governmental funding for national infrastructure, local water works, roads, sturdy bridges, etc. This, in turn, results in dwarfed national development.
But inadequate tax revenue also results in insufficient funds to build enough good schools for all the nation’s children. The scarcity of adequate schools leads to an inadequately trained national work force. This severely incapacitates the formation of a robust professional class of competent teachers, doctors, nurses, business leaders, entrepreneurs, etc. Consequently, developing countries will have a more difficult time attracting companies beyond multinational sweatshops on the hunt for exploitable unskilled labor. Nations with poverty wages will also have a diminished capacity to develop thriving businesses of their own that can participate in the global economy. This state of affairs, however, suits multinational corporations just fine. Their profits are highest when their workers remain at a subsistence level, confined to a cycle of perpetual dependence from one generation to the next.
I have often heard the objection that it is better for workers from poorer countries to have low-paying jobs than no jobs at all. In spite of everything, so I have been told, we are doing poor countries a “favor” by purchasing the things their labor produces for us, right? The truth, however, is that without a fair living wage that provides access to adequate and healthy food, shelter, clothing, and education, workers in developing countries are condemned to a life of dehumanizing poverty, food insecurity, and servitude. What is more, a low-paid workforce is compelled to remain dependent on our handouts. To be honest, as I accepted my florist friend’s admittedly generous donation for our school aid program, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question: Which is better? To give the parents of our school aid children donations and handouts? Or to give them a fair living wage so that they would not need our handouts at all?
While I learned from my small-town florist friend a valuable lesson in economics, I also learned, while living among the poor of El Salvador and traveling among poor communities in Mexico and Central America, that there is indeed a cost, one often unnoticed, even if we in North America and Europe are not the ones paying for it. It is the cost paid by the children of the developing world. Many of them grow up malnourished because their parents are not given living wages to provide them with adequate food. Many others grow up without parents because their parents have left for El Norte, the North, in search of employment that promises to provide a better future for their family back home. And some children never have a chance to grow up. Without access to potable water or health care—things that countries with a strong tax base are able to provide for their citizens—many children from developing countries never make it to age five.
So why do governments of developing countries not demand fair living wages from the multinational businesses that exploit the labor of their citizens? The problem is that when they do, these businesses threaten to move to another poor country with a more “welcoming” government. Such a move would pose a huge economic loss for a country desperate to keep its already high unemployment rate from going even higher.
What Can Be Done
What are we in the industrialized North to do, we who daily consume and use items produced by underpaid workers in the developing world? Once we realize what is going on, how are we to respond? One option is to ignore or forget this issue and to continue with our busy lives of ministry. Yet, as a people fed and nourished by the greatest feast of all, the Eucharist, we cannot remain indifferent to the hunger and misery of others without risk of becoming hypocrites.
A better option might be to look for ways to provide opportunities for education on fair labor to area schools, parishes, and deaneries. This could include offering lists of local retailers and stores with a known fair labor policy. Encouraging the patronization of fair labor businesses, as unpopular and problematic as this might seem initially, can, in time, become a catalyst for positive change, offering strong incentives for other businesses to conform to a new, higher standard of business ethics.
The Eucharist challenges us to make our table resemble God’s own.
Ultimately, to effect lasting positive change, a groundswell is needed to demand enforceable and “teethy” governmental legislation which prohibits the sale of products sold off the sweat of the poor, so that only those companies with impeccable evidence of fair labor ethics may be given entry to local, regional, and national markets. Meanwhile, until such legislation is in place, it will be up to churches, schools, parishes, and dioceses to refuse to patronize or invest in businesses that exploit the labor of their employees, whether locally or abroad.
Imagine the sort of transformation that can result if the whole of the Catholic Church in America, from parish to parish and diocese to diocese, were to take a united stand on this issue and to demand a change. Then imagine the global transformation that would happen when Catholics across the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe come together to take a united stand in defense of laborers around the globe and their rights to a living wage. Imagine a world where all workers earned a living wage and had enough to eat and to live a full human life. Imagine.
God’s Table for All
Perhaps this does not seem so practical. But then we might ask how practical was the prophetic imagination of Isaiah who could envision all humanity coming together to share in God’s feast?
On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain, he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations. He will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces (Is 25:6-8).
We might ask, too, how practical is the Gospel?
And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Lk 13:29-30).
Yet, this is the divine reality we celebrate in the Eucharist—God’s Table for all peoples. The Eucharist, in offering to us God’s Table, challenges us to make our table resemble God’s own. God has given the world and all good things in it for the enjoyment and proper use of all. As Scripture tells us, the divine intention is for all peoples to share in the good things of the earth. Thus, the prophetic imagination must inspire our own. God’s Table is for all. This is the reality into which the Eucharist calls us to live with authenticity, boldness, courage, and the power of love.
As we enter ever more deeply into the reality that the Eucharist holds out for us, may our tables come to be transformed more and more into a reflection, in miniature, of God’s own: a Table for all peoples, where all are filled with good things and no one is left out or sent away hungry.