May Day: people not commodities

A section of the crowd in St Peter's Square on Sunday

Last Monday I interviewed for RTK the leaders of Malta’s two main trade unions: Josef Bugeja the Secretary General of the GWU and Josef Vella the CEO of the UHM Voice of the Workers. Both gave their opinion about the strenghts, weaknesses, threats and opportunities that workers are facing in Malta.

The two Josefs mentioned the positive elements of the current situation of workers. Full employment, job mobility, new opportunities and life long learning possibilities were among the plusses mentioned.

There are important minuses

But there are minuses and important ones.

Both agreed, for example, that workers are not getting a just share of the wealth that is being created. Both agreed that it is unjust that workers doing the same job are not getting the same wage because of a loophole in current legislation. Both were of the opinion that several foreign workers are not treated in a just and fair manner.

Read: Follow Up: Ir-rwol tal-unions f’Malta tal-lum

The discussion can still be accessed from Therefore on this year’s May Day, instead of dwelling more on the points raised by the trade union leaders, I prefer to put forward a number of thoughts and quotes from different addresses and homilies of Pope Frances which are relevant to the Maltese situation.

Cheating people is a mortal sin

On May 24 of last year, for example, during a homily in Domus Sanctae Marthae Francis said that cheating people of their just wages and benefits is a mortal sin. Francis reflected on the first reading from the Letter of James (5:1-6) in which the apostle criticized employers who withheld wages from their workers.

Isn’t this what the Vella and Bugeja complained about when they referred to Maltese and foreign workers not receiving a just wage?

St James complained about the same thing not because he is a union representative but because he is an apostle, said Pope Francis.

The Pope gave concrete examples. Among the abuses that happen in Italy Francis condemned those who leave people out of work to protect their assets, those who pay under the table, those who don’t pay pension contributions, and those who don’t offer vacation days.

Some of these abuses do happen over here particularly when foreign workers are involved.

Wage theft, like “skimming” from people’s pay checks, “is a sin; it is a sin,” the pope said, even if the employer goes to Mass every day, belongs to Catholic associations and prays novenas.

When an employer doesn’t pay what is due, he said, “this injustice is a mortal sin. You are not in God’s grace. I’m not saying this, Jesus says it, the Apostle James says it.”

Open your eyes

On 20 September 2018, the Pope addressed the National Association for those injured or disabled at work (ANMIL),

He emphasised the need to overcome what he called “the fallacious and harmful equivalence between work and productivity, which leads to measuring the value of people on the basis of the quantity of goods or wealth they produce, reducing them to a cogwheel in a system”. He described this as a “perverse perception” as it “contains within itself the seed of exploitation and subjugation, and is rooted in a utilitarian concept of the human person”.

In line with the constant social teaching of the Church the Pope stressed that it is essential to recognize that those we see before us are not commodities, but people: “brothers and sisters in humanity”.

On that occasion Pope Francis appealed to the delegates present at the meeting that they need to open their eyes to such abuses and perverse perceptions.

The same appeal is valid for us today May 1, 2019.