The Masks Are Off, and So Are the Gloves

Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh, was a building owned by one Mohammad Sohel Rana [1], in which a crack appeared one Tuesday in April. [2] An engineer inspected the building, and warned of a possible collapse. [3] Four garment factories and a bank branch in the structure were closed, and workers were told not to report to work the next day. But the factory owners reversed the order, and told their workers to show up. Many were afraid to report to work on Wednesday because of the building’s condition, but did so anyway because they were concerned about losing their jobs. What happened on that Wednesday, April 24, 2013, is well known. The building collapsed, and 1,127 people were killed. [4]

Unsurprisingly, the garment factories were suppliers for western retailers. Among these, a notable presence was Wal-Mart. [5] In 2011 a meeting was held in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, that included global retailers, Bangladeshi factory owners, government officials, and non-government organizations. [6] This meeting was held after several fires in apparel factories had killed dozens the previous winter. During this meeting, an official of Wal-Mart played a lead role in blocking an effort to have global retailers fund proposed improvements in electrical and fire safety.

Dangerous working conditions are not the only atrocity that has been inflicted on Bangladeshi garment workers. Pope Francis decried another condition under which they have been suffering. Wages for such workers have been 38 euros per month. [7] The Holy Father characterized this remuneration as “slave labor.”

“Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us—the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation!” the Pope said.

But the Pope’s criticism of economic injustice in the world has not been limited to this one event, as horrible and heart-wrenching as it was. He has also demanded that financial and political leaders reform the global money system, in order to make it more equitable. [8] “Money has to serve, not to rule!” he has said.

Pope Francis has not been announcing new doctrine. Catholic social teaching has remained consistent. What is different is that the general media has been, for whatever reason, paying attention to the Holy Father’s statements about the injustices that are inflicted upon the world’s poor. But with that attention has come an opportunity.

There are those who would have us believe that capitalism unfettered by regulatory restraint is a social goal that can be squared with Catholic social doctrine. It has never been so, of course, and the very beginning of the Christian Democracy movement was sparked by the social conditions that arose out of unchecked capitalism.

Those who have been paying attention have known this for some time. There is now reason for hope that, with the ministry of Pope Francis, the contents of Catholic social teaching will become generally known. Then, at last, we can put an end to the pretensions of those who would hoodwink the faithful into believing that businesses behaving as they will, providing the working conditions that they will, and paying the wages that they will, is an acceptable Catholic answer to social problems.

Jack Quirk

Christian Democracy is available for free. Donations, however, are thankfully accepted.