Consumers play role in workplace injustices

A society built on an economy that values profits and cheap products over fair wages and safe conditions for workers is unjust, Pope Francis said during a May 1 homily.

“Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God!” Vatican Radio reported the pope saying in reaction to the April 24 collapse of a factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed more than 1,100 workers.

News that the workers were only earning about 38 euros (or $49) a month — which the pope called a slave wage — and were ordered to return to work after cracks had been detected in the factory is generating substantial public pressure for large multinational retailers to adopt new stringent standards for garment manufacturing.

Three of the world’s largest apparel companies — H&M, C&A of the Netherlands and Inditex, owner of the Zara chain — agreed May 13 to sign a plan that requires retailers to help pay for fire safety and building improvements in factories they use in Bangladesh, The New York Times reported.

Complex questions

The tragedy in Bangladesh also raises serious issues for Catholics in a globalized economy to reflect upon their economic decisions and determine how their spending habits can either contribute to injustice for workers across the globe or build up the common good for their brothers and sisters in developing countries.

It is a complex issue that forces moral theologians to think through the question of whether someone who buys a less expensive shirt manufactured in a sweatshop is morally culpable. Some would say that situation would be remote material cooperation and therefore not sinful, or at least seriously sinful, said Charles Camosy, an assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University.

“But if one’s consumer choices drive the practice, and we will the end of the practice (inexpensive clothing and the means by which it is achieved) then we are moving toward formal cooperation with evil — a very serious matter indeed,” Camosy said.

“Since most of us buy clothes and other products as cheaply as possible, we certainly will the end of these companies — and though there is debate about this in Catholic moral theology — it is difficult for me to see how we cannot also will the means by which the end of cheap clothes is achieved,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.

Charles K. Wilber, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame and author of “Catholics Spending and Acting Justly: a Small Group Guide for Living Economic Stewardship,” said it is “clear” in Catholic social teaching that employers are obligated to provide employees with conditions that enable them to develop as human beings.

A difficulty is that consumers often have limited access to information on how the products they buy in local stores are produced, Wilber said, though he added that consumers may be obligated to not buy certain items when they learn they were manufactured through unjust means of production.

“If consumers have been told and recognize and accept the fact that a company is using abusive methods of production, and say, ‘Well I want the product anyway,’” then there’s work to be done, he said. “They’ve got to at least think in terms of what the alternatives are.”

Engaging manufacturer

Conscientious consumers may take two different approaches to a company with problematic worker policies, Wilber said. They may stop buying that firm’s products, or they may decide to write letters to Congress or the president and chief executive officer of the company to use their influence to reform the company.

Female workers produce H&M bath shirts in the Banga Garment Ltd, supplier to H&M in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Feb. 12, 2006. Newscom

“Which is the best way to do it? I don’t know,” Wilber said.

Engaging the manufacturers rather than shunning them is usually the better approach because oftentimes the workers — even though they may not earn fair wages — still need jobs, said Capuchin Franciscan Father Michael Crosby, who coordinates the work of religious institutions in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas that are part of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

“It seems to me to engage the sinner and invite that one to conversion is at the heart of the evangelical message. We only shake the dust from our feet when there is no hope for conversion,” said Father Crosby.

He added that people still need to take into account Catholic social justice principles, especially that of the common good. People today often are more willing to examine food nutrition labels for their own personal good but not bother to think about how the clothing they purchase contributes to or undermines the common good.

“I think such thinking reflects what the recent popes have condemned as individualism,” Father Crosby said. “This consumer action of saying, ‘It’s good for me, it saves me money,’ it’s not only short-sighted. It is very self-centered.

“They’re not asking the questions, ‘How was this made? Who’s being hurt?’ We have to start with asking, ‘How is everyone connected?’ Catholic social teaching tells us that we are all connected. So we should all ask ourselves, ‘How are my actions contributing to a greater connectivity for good or how are my choices contributing to a further disintegration and alienation?’”

Examining consciences

Individual consumers may argue that they are only one of millions of customers buying a product, so individual decisions will not help address injustice. They could also argue that they are so far removed from the means of productions that they are not really culpable.

However, Dominican Father Albino Barrera, a moral theology professor at Providence College and author of the “Market Complicity and Christian Ethics,” said Christians still find themselves morally responsible to respond to economic injustices, if even in a very small way.

“Humanity is really one big family. A person in Bangladesh is still a brother and a sister to me, no matter how remote the chain of causation is,” he said. “Also, and this speaks to Christian virtue theory, if I know there is something I can do to make life a little easier for somebody else, it would be the virtuous thing to do it.”

As to the question of moral culpability and spending decisions, Father Barrera argued there are several factors for individual Catholics to consider when examining their consciences. Those with the financial means and resources may be obligated to buy the more expensive product rather than the cheaper alternative manufactured in an unjust manner. However, a poor family would not be morally obligated to purchase the more expensive product because they cannot afford it, Father Barrera said, who added anyone can use his or her voice to call upon businesses to scrutinize their manufacturing.

“We can do something about it. There is a moral obligation on the part of not only Catholics but also everybody to really inform their conscience,” he said. “It’s important for us to educate ourselves, especially in light of the resources available to us, such as the Internet, and that is what makes our era that much more exciting.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.