Message for 2021 Labour Day
“Because no one has hired us” (Mt 20,7)
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (cf. Mt 20,1-16), Jesus paid attention to the workers, especially those who were excluded. They pleaded their pitiable situations, saying, “no one has hired us” (Mt 20,7). They were being treated “as an instrument of production” (Enc. Laborem Exercens, n.7) rather than as human beings in a respectful manner.
Today, workers are even considered as ‘redundant workers.’ It means they are no longer productive or profitable. As capitalist society takes those people for granted, the livelihood of the workers including their family members is no longer of interest. However, the overriding concern of the vineyard’s landowner was life. Above all, he chose the lives of the excluded workers and their families, remaining willing to renounce his profits. This was because he did not look upon them as instruments or redundant workers, but rather as children of God: brothers and sisters deserving of respect and protection.
Unfortunately, some workers are unable to return home from their work because of miserable industrial accidents. Workers, who are fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, often lose their lives in the workplace, on the street, on the land, and at sea.
They are transport workers forced to do more work and at a faster pace; workers forced to constantly smile and be courteous even though some consumers speak or behave in violent and abusive ways; construction workers forced to work in dangerous structures; machinists and engineers who are made to use inappropriate tools and machines with faulty safety gear; workers exposed to unknown chemicals; teenage workers forced to do manual chores instead of being given a chance to learn practical skills; migrant workers discriminated against in the workplace; and subcontracted and temporary workers forced to undertake dangerous tasks.
It has become common to consider the lives of workers simply as instruments of profit. The truth of God is that “man is the source, the center, and the purpose of all economic and social life” (Gaudium et Spes, n.63). However, today the capital has become the owner of both labor and workers.
Some workers return home after work, but still live with anxiety and difficulties. Among them are migrant women workers. Often living in vinyl greenhouses, they are only permitted to use dirty outside toilets in the dark of night. They endure unfavorable and often extremely dangerous living conditions. Frequently water pipes are frozen in winter, and electric cut off without notice. In spite of these bad living conditions, rental fees are deducted from their wages without exception.
Labor Standard Act, Article 63 specifies that work and rest hours should be guaranteed; however, in reality labor laws do not matter and something akin to slave labor continues. In other words, they are coerced into working more than 10 hours a day without being properly paid (cf. Enc. Rerum Novarum, n.14). What is desperately needed for the well-being of such workers is a degree of comfortable and safe relaxation after periods of grinding labor, but such security is often denied them. We should remember that such workers are human beings with rights and not simply objects of exploitation (cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n.298). Sadly, in reality such workers are treated merely as cogs in a machine with only one purpose, profit.
Usually, workers return home after their day’s work so as to spend precious time with their families. The good displayed by the landowner of the vineyard in the Gospel witnesses to the importance of providing such opportunities. He acknowledged and protected the dignity of the workers, who for him were made in the image and likeness of God (cf. Ibid, n.144).
At the same time, he also practiced charity by forgoing on his profits. In this way, he gave life and joy to the workers and their families. Such good will ought to resonate with us in our efforts to change society. The principle of solidarity can make all of us, including employers, work towards the common good and endeavor to build a world where the safety and lives of workers and their families are more important than profits and efficiency.
As Pope Francis said, “only when our economic and social system no longer produces even a single victim, a single person cast aside, will we be able to celebrate the feast of universal fraternity” (Enc. Fratelli Tutti, n.110).
Saint Joseph, Patron of workers and families, pray for us.
May 1, 2021
+ John Kim Sontae
Bishop of Jeonju
CBCK Committee for Justice & Peace