Profits over people?

I am proud of Father Ryan High School in Nashville, my alma mater. The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, recently reported that students and faculty had realized that many of the school’s athletic uniforms were coming from companies that produce items in foreign countries where workers are startlingly under-compensated. Denying workers proper wages and benefits is immoral in the Church’s eyes.

Father Ryan, of course, is a Catholic school. I am so proud of the students’ active attention to morality. I also am proud that school officials are looking for suppliers with employment policies consistent with Catholic values.

Labels are free advertising. Father Ryan will not provide it. All tags and logos on uniforms visible to observers are now covered with patches that have embroidered crosses.

I hope that enough people who see the uniforms will connect the crosses with the school’s determination to follow its Catholicism. The matter has been well-publicized, so people may get the message.

During the Cold War, entertainer Kate Smith, who was Catholic, used her daily television show to alert Americans to the fact that many people in communist Eastern European were compelled to work virtually as slaves to produce fine china.

She insisted that no one in this country should tacitly support these communist overlords by being silent in the face of such abuses. Complain to merchants and politicians, she said. She was widely applauded for taking this stand.

These are the cold facts. Using labor in poor countries with lax laws appeals to American businesses, because production costs are much less, and therefore the finished product is cheaper, making it more likely to be sold. Something made in the United States, or in France or Spain or Italy, where laws ensure decent wages and comprehensive benefits, will cost more.

No one is calling for a boycott of anything. Instead, attitudes and instincts must change. American Catholics sincere about the teachings of their Church can inquire and speak out. If enough customers are concerned, merchants will question their suppliers.

It requires something else — something much harder. The bottom line is the almighty dollar. If I look for a raincoat and find a coat in one store priced less than a coat in the store next door, I likely will buy the cheaper coat.

I wonder if I now am wearing anything made in the United States. It is the way of things now. I see that my suit jacket, at least, was made in Vietnam. Who or what am I supporting when I buy clothes?

I must decide if I will pay more for something, will I make a sacrifice, to assert Catholic values? I must be set priorities and calculate my needs. Ultimately, it is up to consumers. The Church teaches that producers have a right to a profit, but that employees also have basic rights.

A few days ago, a man called my home to offer me life insurance. He told me all the advantages of the policy he was promoting. I told him that as a Catholic priest I did not need a lot of life insurance. He said that he is a Catholic himself and called me “Father.”

I asked him if he owned a policy. He did not. He cannot afford insurance. I questioned him further. He was calling from a foreign country, works 12 hours a day, six days a week, rarely sees his young children while they are awake and never is able to attend Mass. He receives no benefits, no vacation, no retirement. He worries about putting food on the family table.

Guess why his American employer has this operation in his country?

People suffer. It is wrong. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.