worker rightsDon't shop till they drop

Can anyone live with dignity on pennies an hour abroad or even $7.25 an hour here? Catholics should support a living wage for all—at the ballot box and at the shopping mall.

I don’t shop at Wal-Mart. I don’t wear Nike sneakers or any product with a Nike swoosh. I avoid buying anything made in China.

living wage survey

Until fairly late in life, I didn’t really care where things came from. I didn’t examine labels to see where clothing was manufactured or scan the copyright page of books to see where they were printed. If I liked a product, liked the price, and needed it for myself or my family, I bought it. No hesitation. But I’ve changed.

Now I have a visceral reaction against buying a sweatshirt that might have been made by a 10-year-old girl, or a shoe that might have been made by a priest or a Falun Gong member locked up in China’s notorious forced labor camps. What changed me?

About 15 years ago, during a job-related trip to Bangladesh, I saw little girls and boys as young as 10 or 11 toiling for a few cents an hour in factories assembling garments for Wal-Mart and other stores in the United States and Europe. The sight affected me deeply. Back home I attended a meeting of a Washington, D.C. group called the Child Labor Coalition and choked up when I reported on what I saw in Bangladesh.

My personal experience visiting factories in Bangladesh, and later in other Asian countries, opened my eyes. Besides continuing to support the Child Labor Coalition, I started to monitor the fate of workers all over the world more closely by launching a website, Human Rights for Workers ( The size of the scandal is beyond belief.

The labor problems of Wal-Mart and Nike, world leaders in their particular domains, are only symbols of the much wider problems in the global network of production and supply chains where sweatshops flourish. This network serves some 700,000 multinational firms with products from factories they do not own, made by 70 million workers (mostly women) they themselves don’t employ.

U.S. workers aren’t immune to the effects of this network. The Economic Policy Institute says that the United States lost more than 3 million manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2005, partially due to cheap foreign labor. Service industry jobs that have replaced many manufacturing jobs often don’t pay enough for people to live with dignity here.

Most people are shocked to learn about a sweatshop scandal—say, a Hanes factory in Bangladesh employing 200 children at wages as low as 6.5 cents an hour—but they also should be shocked to learn about U.S. children growing up malnourished and in poor health because their parents earn poverty-level wages from full-time jobs without health insurance. What can you realistically do to correct such gross violations of human rights?

You can boycott a product made in a sweatshop if you know the name of the product or its retail outlet. You can write a letter of concern to the embassy of the country where the tragedy occurred. You can donate to a worker rights advocacy organization, such as the Child Labor Coalition.

And you can help on the home front. Yes, here in the richest country in the world, we have our own brand of sweatshops and near-sweatshops—in restaurants, in meatpacking plants, in clothing factories, in hospitals, in farm fields, even on university campuses—where grown men and women work full time at near-starvation wages. You are needed to end that national scandal.

As a Catholic who has witnessed violations of human rights overseas, I personally cannot support companies that I know profit off poor workers there or here—and many do both. But there are other, often more effective, ways to get involved, for example, by lobbying and voting for raising the minimum wage at the federal level and in your own state and local community. And you can become an active participant in a grassroots campaign.

Many ordinary Americans, God bless them, are already involved in such local campaigns, which have done much better than Congress in increasing the pay of millions of underpaid workers in communities across the United States. In fact, thanks to such campaigns, at least half of all working men and women in the United States now live in cities and states where the official minimum pay rate is higher than the decade-old federal minimum of $5.15 an hour.

There are now countless churches, community organizations, labor unions, and other local advocacy groups taking up the cause of the poor. Their campaigns constitute a grassroots living wage movement that policymakers can no longer ignore.

How do you locate current and future campaigns? The best national source is the Living Wage Resource Center in Washington, D.C. On this organization’s website,, you’ll also find how-to information and useful links to other sources. For local information, check your parish or area civic organizations, labor unions, and newspapers.

While the new Congress is working to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, this movement does not want to settle for merely a minimum wage. After all, for a worker employed 52 weeks of the year, the $7.50-an-hour state minimum established in California in 2005 comes to only $15,600 a year, which is $3,750 below the 2005 federal poverty level for a typical family of four. The real goal is to win a living wage—or just wage in Catholic social teaching—one adequate to support a worker and his or her family at a decent level. There is no formula for setting that level for every community, since the cost of living and other circumstances vary geographically. Arriving at a fair amount in your area requires much bargaining. That’s why justice-minded men and women need to participate in the negotiating process, in order to press for a dollar amount above the barest minimum.

The negotiations may appear to be only about money, but don’t forget that a basic moral value is at stake. Catholic teaching regards achieving a living wage as a matter of justice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice.” Or as Pope Leo XIII put it more than a century ago in his historic encyclical On the Condition of Labor (Rerum Novarum): “To defraud anyone of wages that are his due is a crime which rises to the avenging anger of heaven.”

During a campaign to raise the minimum wage in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Father Jerome Martinez, a pastor who supported the cause, was asked why he didn’t stick to religion. “Well, pardon me—this is religion,” he told a reporter later. “The scripture is full of matters of justice. How can you worship a God that you do not see and then oppress the workers that you do see?”

After much controversy, the city of Santa Fe gradually raised its minimum from $5.15 an hour to $9.50, the highest rate in the United States. The winning argument was quite straightforward: “It’s just immoral to pay $5.15; they can’t live on that.”

Opponents argue that raising minimum wages actually destroys jobs. But recent empirical research by economists shows that adopting higher minimum pay has not stunted employment, and in some instances has even increased it. In a joint statement issued last October, 650 economists—including six Nobel Prize winners—asserted that a modest, inflation-indexed increase in the minimum wage, at both the national and state levels, “can significantly improve the lives of low-income workers and their families, without the adverse effects that critics have claimed.”

The very idea of having government set a wage floor offends some people, especially business owners. But Responsible Wealth, a national network of businesspeople, investors, and the affluent, holds that “paying employees a living wage is good business, creating stronger communities and better customers” and urges business to sign a “covenant” in support of that goal.

From my own perspective, reached after long personal efforts to apply Catholic social teaching to modern problems, I find much virtue in this movement for a living wage. I see more and more ordinary citizens, working together, living up to the words of the gospel to love our neighbor. I see them disproving the immoral theory that human lives can improve only through value-free market competition. I see them showing how people can address other modern challenges, such as world poverty and unjust international trade and investment laws. In short, I see people moving toward a world in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Robert Senser is editor of Human Rights for Workers, a monthly online newsletter available at


The reason I am for or against the living wage is...

When honest, hard-working people do not make a decent wage, they often take on additonal jobs, and this is deleterious to their health and family relationships.
Tish Petricca
Schaumburg, Ill.

Higher minimum wages could eliminate jobs. We need to balance employment opportunities and higher wages.
Gerald Scanlan
New City, N.Y.

Christians are called to see Christ in all.
Joseph Darguzas
Homewood, Ill.


Although 91 percent of U.S. Catholic readers say they support a living wage, 72 percent say they haven't done much about it, according to April's Sounding Board, "Don’t shop till they drop." Author Robert Senser argues that justice-minded Catholics need to get involved in movements to protect the human rights of workers, whether they are sewing sweatshirts in Bangladesh, picking tomatoes in Florida, or stocking the shelves in a store down the street. Therefore, U.S. Catholic has compiled a list of resources to help readers act on their values and help the world's working poor earn a wage they and their families can live on. These resources include information on the living wage concept as well as local, national, and international campaigns—from boycotts to political lobbying.

Organizations mentioned in the article:
Human Rights for workers
: Author Robert Senser's site and newsletter

ACORN’s living wage campaign
: See links for local campaigns

Economic Policy Institute
: Information on the living wage

Responsible Wealth

Child Labor Coalition

Jib Jab's Big Box Mart Cartoon and Song connects low wages for workers both making and selling low-priced goods.

International Labor Rights Fund 

Living Wage Calculator
Find out what a living wage would be in your community

The Catholic-Labor Network

A good source for Catholic social teachings on labor issues.

USCCB Poverty USA Campaign
Watch the Tour to learn what it’s like to live at the poverty level

United Students Against Sweatshops

NETWORK National Catholic Social Justic Lobby

AFL-CIO National and local union movements

Universal Living Wage

Interfaith Worker Justice

Campaign for Labor Rights

Worker Rights Consortium

National Labor Committee

Sweatshop watch

Let Justice Roll

Farm laborers:
National Farm Worker Ministry

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

The concept of a living wage is socialism. It can only work in an ideal world. Promote better education to allow workers to advance from starting wages.
Cesar Gonzalez
Troy, Mich.

My daughter works long, hard hours as a preschool teacher and cannot support herself and her daughter without food stamps. She has no health insurance. No one should have to live like that.
Valerie Corkern
Lafayette, La.

By what criteria do we establish a living wage: home ownership versus renting? Owning a vehicle versus using public transportation? TVs, computers? This is where I have a problem.
Name withheld
Rochester, N.Y.

The most effective way to achieve a living wage in our country is...To legislate it. There will always be those who will not raise wages unless it’s law.
Dona Cannon
Churchville, Md.

Spread the truth about unfair labor practices, unjust compensation, and sweatshop and child labor. Grassroots efforts including boycotts and lobbying.
Lorraine DeCuyper
Cohoes, N.Y.

Place legal caps on all forms of executive compensation. Work to change U.S. cultural emphasis on individual success to a commitment to the common good.
Beatrice Mondare
Oakland, N.J.

Let every state or community set their own standard rather than the single national standard.
Teresa Szott
Arlington Heights, Ill.

Market forces. Control illegal immigration.
Name withheld
Oakland, Calif.

Pass immigration reform so all are counted. None are more taken advantage of than illegal immigrants.
Name withheld
Milwaukee, Wis.

One purchasing decision that I have made based on how workers are treated is...

Buying local produce at a farmer’s market.
Robert Estoye
Hixson, Tenn.

I do not shop at Wal-Mart. I think the national pressure is beginning to get Wal-Mart to change their policies.
Ron Pagnucco
Saint Joseph, Minn.

Our family is currently researching and making an effort to purchase “fair trade” products, beginning with coffee.
Marianne Hughes
New Martinsville, W.Va.

I don’t knowingly buy sweatshop items and mostly avoid Wal-Mart. Sometimes my own financial straits lead me there.
Laurel Wilson
Ocala, Fla.

I try very hard to buy items made in the U.S. I also like to buy from co-ops where workers own and manage the business, like King Arthur Flour.
Rita Morrison
Bow, N.H.

How embarrassing, but we can think of no purchasing decision we’ve made based on workers’ treatment. Thank you for raising the issue and starting us on a path of social consciousness.
Tony and Diana Hanebrink
Ogden, Utah

If I were starting a business today, I would deal with the living wage question by . .  Hiring fewer workers but paying a living wage, expecting high productivity.
Madeline Whelan
Glen St. Mary, Fla.

I’d like to say I’d pay $10 an hour as a base wage, but I see many people who seem to lack a solid work ethic.
Jean Kilquist
Joplin, Mo.

Providing full-time employment when possible and sought—not less than full-time to avoid offering benefits.
Helen P. Martin
O’Fallon, Ill.

Advertising that I pay a living wage and providing information to customers about the living wage and poverty. There are enough people who support a living wage that I would have a strong base of customers and still be able to sleep at night.
Stacie Lynne Adams
Perry, Kan.

I do own a business today, and it is very important to my husband and me to provide a living wage and more. It keeps our employees content and productive, and our bottom line is just fine because of it.
Erin Boselli
Edwards, Colo.

What my Catholic faith teaches me about ethical work conditions is . . .

The dignity and value of each person must always be respected. Each person has the right to having their basic needs met and being treated justly.
Michael Tubridy
Glenview, Ill.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
Jeanne B. Fletcher
Clifton Park, N.Y.

Preferential option for the poor. We are judged by how we treat the least among us (Matthew 25).
Fred Eyerman
Denver, Colo.

We should apply our faith in all areas of our lives.
Leslie Sholly
Knoxville, Tenn.

The Catholic Church should begin in its own workplace. Some Catholic institutions do not provide a living wage. Begin here and then people would listen to the church’s plea for justice in the workplace.
Carolyn Regan
St. Louis, Mo.

“A laborer is worthy of his hire,” says Paul. That certainly means a living wage.
Frances Fitzpatrick
Aberdeen, Wash.

Providing a living wage is a matter of justice and is as much a consumer’s responsibility as it is a business owner’s.
Maureen McCarron
Conesus, N.Y.

General Comments

Today people make good money as long as they are seen as useful to the organization. Beyond that they are seen as commodities, things to be disposed of with no regard to human considerations. Profit is more important than people.
Father Raymond C. Mann, O.F.M.
Boston, Mass.

Employers also need to provide health insurance, child care, and other options to help their employees.
Paul J. Kallmann
Vancouver, Wash.

How many millions of dollars are needed to live comfortably? Highly paid executives could share the wealth, pay employees more without a rise in prices.
Jane Serio
Wantagh, N.Y.

I would like to see those legislators voting against a living wage live on the minimum wage. Legislation should limit legislators’ wage increases to the same percentage the minimum wage gets.
Mary Kay McKenzie, C.C.V.I.
St. Louis, Mo.

All we have around here is Wal-Mart. I want to support “not shopping” at Wal-Mart. We live on Social Security, have no insurance, and only buy what we need.
Judy Spencer
Balsam Lake, Wis.

We do not have a “free market” in America, and we never have. The government assists corporations through its laws and economic policies. Why not workers, too?
Kelly Gauthier
Ann Arbor, Mich

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