Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
September 3, 2001
Slavery has not gone away
The celebration of Labour Day this weekend is perhaps a paradox for many workers. Work, for many, is not something to be celebrated, but to be endured, a necessary evil for the sake of something else - usually a pay cheque that allows one's family to survive and to enjoy some small luxuries.
But this is a despairing view, one that makes men and women slaves to their pay cheques. At the end of 45 or so years of work, the merry-go-round stops and a person gets off. Retirement is a time of ease and enjoyment, marred only by one's own declining abilities, the deaths of one's friends and the closing in of the Grim Reaper upon oneself. Life sounds like a cruel joke.
Life is certainly more hopeful than that and God has intended it to be so. Work is, in fact, a good thing, an act through which we can share in building God's creation. Work can be useful to others and it can be enjoyable in itself.
In his 1981 encyclical, On Human Work, Pope John Paul says, "Work is a good thing for man . . . because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes 'more a human being'" (n. 9).
Through sweat and toil, we can grow in virtue and in wisdom. We can also grow closer to Christ who was himself a worker and we can share in his cross by patiently bearing with the more unpleasant aspects of our work.
Yet for all that, work remains for millions of people a form of exploitation that prevents them from realizing their full humanity. We think especially of the new forms of slavery - debt bondage, child soldiers, forced marriages of the very young and child labour.
The August edition of the New Internationalist magazine estimates that there are now 10 times as many slaves as at the end of the Second World War - 27 million. Most of those slaves are in bondage because of debt they have incurred. And although debt bondage was outlawed in India 25 years ago, today 10 million people there are enslaved to their debtors. Their lives are not their own. They are forced to do hard labour for little or no pay. They are controlled by violence or threats of violence and they have little freedom of movement. After many years of working off the debt, they often find themselves more in debt than when they began.
Other slaves are prostitutes, producing huge profits for their owners and nothing for themselves. When they are too old and diseased, they are thrown out on the street.
The existence of slavery - which goes beyond mere marginalization - is an insult to the Creator. It casts a pall over our Labour Day celebrations. It also testifies to the fact that while the world has pretty much eliminated formal ownership of one person by another, slavery keeps rearing its ugly head in new ways.
In his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul wrote, "God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone" (n. 31).
Last week, our local daily newspaper told of a family of four who have just built a 9,000-square-foot house. No doubt they have worked hard for what they have. But God's creation was not intended to be thus - some having an incredible abundance of the world's goods and others held in bondage with nothing to call their own. This Labour Day we need to ponder how things can be different.
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