Wednesday, 22 June 2016 09:59

Civilised Slavery or Workers Exploitation

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IMAGE Civilised slavery or Workers ExploitationIn his homily at Casa Santa Marta last month Pope Francis criticised entrepreneurs who get rich by exploiting workers and enslave the poor. He declared “When riches are created by exploiting the people, by those rich people who exploit [others], they take advantage of the work of the people, and those poor people become slaves. We think of the here and now, the same thing happens all over the world. ‘I want to work.’ ‘Good, they’ll make you a contract, from September to June.’ Without a pension, without health care... Then they suspend it, and in July and August they have to eat air. And in September, they laugh at you about it. Those who do that are true bloodsuckers, and they live by spilling the blood of the people who they make slaves of labour.”1

These are strong words and an extremely crucial message from the Pope to remind us all that we need to guard ourselves against the resurgence of slavery. In Australia, a similar kind of slavery is rampant. Students from overseas are forced to work in the hospitality industry with very low wages - lower than the wages for fifteen year olds (as dictated by law). Many of these students do not come from rich families so their allowances are very limited. Besides, they were probably given the impression that it is easy to find part-time jobs in the city. So when their funds are low, they simply accept any type of work with extremely low wages, no superannuation, no other benefits and no contracts. We could think these students work in little take-away shops. However, they also work in similar conditions in kitchens of high profile restaurants, some owned by businessmen close to politicians or those who support political parties.

In Southeast Asia, some large department stores only give out a work-contract of a maximum of six months. They even limit the age for accepting workers. There are also call centres that make their workers perform like machines and provide very limited benefits, pay low wages and hand out very strict rosters with almost no time for bathroom breaks.

However, it is not only entrepreneurs who enforce this “civilised” slavery. In Asia, several households with both spouses working have helpers at home. While the majority of employers treat their domestic workers with dignity and fairness, there are several cases of abuse and injustice that occur every day. These incidences only get highlighted when the media comes across an extremely high profile case.

When my husband and I lived in Malaysia, I worked in a Catholic church’s office that was involved in human development. I was involved in the formation and support of migrant workers who mostly worked as domestic workers. Each week, our office came across cases of domestic workers who were physically abused by their employers mainly due to the tiniest of mistakes. As a daughter of a migrant worker (my Dad worked as a civil engineer in Saudi Arabia for several years), listening to these stories of abuse emotionally affected me. On several dinner dates with my husband I was just in tears as I told him these stories.

Both my parents worked with the government full-time and did extra work before or after their work schedule. Besides working as a Civil Engineer at City Hall, my father would work some nights teaching Calculus and Algebra at a local university. My mother was a teacher at the city elementary school half the workday and some mornings she taught home-schooled children of an international church pastor to make ends meet. So, my siblings and I, as school-aged children, had three home helpers – one cooked, one hand-washed clothes and the other cleaned the house and kept the yard. We children were expected to concentrate on our studies and help with minor tasks. One thing that our parents taught us was to always treat our helpers with respect and dignity. They would always remind us that they were not servants but generous people who wanted to help our family and at the same time earn money for their own families. We were never allowed to call them degrading names or abuse them in any way.

In today’s world economy, the temptation to pay workers less than market rate to improve company profits always comes along. It also becomes common practice to hire virtual assistants or outsource jobs to workers overseas in developing countries to save on labour expenses.

For us who are Catholics and Christians, whether we be entrepreneurs or employees, we are all called to advocate for workers who are taken advantage of by people who place value on profits more than on people. Workers, no matter who they are, where they are from, what kind of work they do, need to survive with decency and with dignity.

Let us pray and hope that all witnesses of abuse and exploitation will be courageous enough to help change the working conditions of all affected workers.


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