Abusive labor practices continue to plague workers here and around the worlda circumstance that should give pause to those fortunate enough to earn comfortable incomes for themselves and their families. For many it may come as a surprise that even here in the United States, worker exploitation is pervasive. Wal-Mart, the country’s largest retailer, offers a case in point. Among other issues, it has been cited for child labor law violations in two dozen stores nationally. After a federal investigation of such issues in Connecticut, Arkansas and New Hampshire, the giant corporation was fined $135,540a sum child advocacy groups derided as paltry.
But the use of child labor in poorer countries is also widespread and far more blatant, despite the prohibition in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child of work considered dangerous or detrimental to children’s education and development. Human Rights Watch has documented harmful practices in El Salvador, for example. One of its reports found that children as young as eight were planting and cutting in sugar cane fields, backbreaking work in which accidents are common. The sugar cane leaves in themselves are dangerous to the touch because, the report notes, they are covered with a substance that is a skin irritant.
Young girls working as domestic servants around the globe make up another frequently exploited group. The International Labor Organization has estimated that more children work as domestics than in any other type of child labor. Because theirs is a hidden employmentworking as they do in private families and often unseen by the outside worldphysical abuse and sexual harassment frequently go unreported. Their long hours and restrictions of movement virtually preclude the possibility of education.
For adults worldwide, resistance to unionization by big corporations militates against fair labor practices. Again, Wal-Mart serves as an example in the United States. When 10 butchers at a store in Jacksonville, Fla., voted to join a union, Wal-Mart simply eliminated their jobs by shipping in precut meats. A more far-reaching step was taken in Canada. When workers at a store in Quebec moved toward unionization, the whole store was closed down.
Exploitative labor practices have become increasingly common here among the estimated 10 million undocumented workers now in the United States. Because of their irregular immigration status, they can easily fall prey to unscrupulous employers. A 1986 federal law mandated that employers verify the legal status of their workers. But especially in some physically demanding jobs that many Americans shunlike construction, agriculture and meat processingemployers desperate for help often wink at issues of immigration status when they interview job applicants.
Should workers later complain about working conditions or low wages, the threat of being reported to the immigration authorities can be called into play. One notorious example concerned a group of eight Mexican workers at a Holiday Inn in Minneapolis. When the workersmostly housekeepersvoted to join a union, the inn’s manager fired them and then reported them to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
Day laborers are another easily exploited group. A recent study funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and a local foundation in Washington, D.C., found that the area’s burgeoning construction industry increased the demand for day laborers. About two-thirds are from Central America, and many are undocumented. The report concluded that over half the employers for whom they worked failed to pay them for a job at least once or paid them with checks that bounced. Situations of this kind are prevalent in other parts of the country as well. The U.S. Department of Labor has too few investigators to check on unfair practices of this kind, and therefore enforcement remains weak. But even for American citizens, survival through low-wage jobs can be precarious, given a minimum wage that has remained at $5.15 an hour since 1997. The wages of a mother working full time with a child to support would be below the poverty line.
In his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Workers), Pope Leo XIII wrote that the laboring poor [bear] a yoke little better than that of slavery itself, and he urged that some opportune remedy...be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.
We are still waiting for that opportune remedy, one that would make it possible for people to sustain themselves and their families through laborthe kind that reinforces their dignity as human beings created in the image of God. The current dispute within the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is an unfortunate move in the opposite direction. Unions can be powerful advocates for poor workers. Let the unions’ internal divisions be resolved.