Francis on workers' rights: 'God will hold accountable slavers of our day'

This story appears in the Francis in Mexico feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has again lambasted treatment of workers in the global market system, bluntly declaring to day laborers and their employers in a meeting here Wednesday that "God will hold accountable the slavers of our day."

The pontiff has also sharply defended Catholic social teaching against those who say following its precepts would cost businesses too much money, calling it a "prophetic voice to protect us all from being lost in the seductive sea of ambition."

In an encounter with workers and employers in this Mexican border city, Francis asked that the two groups work together to identify what kind of world they wish to leave to future generations.

"What kind of Mexico do you want to leave your children?" the pope asked succinctly. "Do you want to leave them the memory of exploitation, of insufficient pay, of workplace harassment? Or do you want to leave them a culture that recalls dignified work, a proper roof, and land to be worked?"

"Unfortunately, the times we live in have imposed the paradigm of economic utility as the starting point for personal relationships," said the pope. "The prevailing mentality advocates for the greatest possible profits, immediately and at any cost."

"The prevailing mentality puts the flow of people at the service of the flow of capital, resulting in many cases in the exploitation of employees as if they were objects to be used and discarded," he said.

"God will hold accountable the slavers of our day, and we must do everything to make sure that these situations do not happen again," said the pontiff. "The flow of capital cannot decide the flow and life of people."

Francis was speaking Wednesday in one of his last events of his six-day trip to Mexico, where he met here with workers and employers of maquiladoras, factories where day laborers work on items to be exported outside the country.

There are more than 300 maquiladoras in Juarez, many of which are owned by U.S. companies that take advantage of cheaper labor rates on the southern side of the border and then import the products back to the U.S.

The head of the Juárez diocesan office for worker's concerns said that many of the laborers receive such low pay that they cannot make any sort of financial plans beyond the current day.

Even though some laborers work for the same companies for decades they have no financial security, said Elizabeth Flores.

"A lot of people are going to listen [to the pope]," said Flores, whose office provides legal assistance and defense for such workers. "They are going to know what he has to say to the workers."

Crowds were very large in Juarez to welcome the pope. As he drove in the popemobile about six miles through the city to the Colegio de Bacilleres for the meeting, people were lined several rows deep along the road, shouting slogans and screaming in joy.

The pontiff was responding in his remarks Wednesday to two testimonies given at the event by workers.

Juan Castañon, national president of the Business Coordinating Council, told Francis that one in two Mexicans live in poverty and six out of ten Mexican workers are in the "informal" economy, working without benefits like healthcare.

"What do we need as a society?" Castañon asked. "Dignified work, with decent salaries and productivity. Human beings are the beginning and end of any economic and political activity."

Married couple Daisy Flores Gámez and Jesus Gurrola Varela brought their two children with them to speak with Francis, with Gurrola holding them both on his hips. Gámez told the pope that because of the economic situation it has become increasingly hard to care for them.

"We want peace, fair salaries, eight-hour days so we can spend more time with our families," they said. "In exchange we will teach values, love and the importance of community life to our children.

Francis responded that the seeking of profit at any human cost "forgets that the best investment we can make is in people, in individual persons and in families."

"The best investment is creating opportunities," said the pope.

Defending Catholic social teaching, the pontiff said that "the only aspiration of the Church's social doctrine is to guard over the integrity of people and social structures."

"Every time that, for whatever reason, this integrity is threatened or reduced to a consumer good, the Church's social doctrine will be a prophetic voice to protect us all from being lost in the seductive sea of ambition," said Francis.

Asking what future the Mexicans want for their children, the pope asked: "What type of culture do we want for those who will come after us?"

"What air will they breathe?" he asked. "An air tainted by corruption, violence, insecurity and suspicion, or, on the contrary, an air capable of generating alternatives, renewal and change?"

The pope then praised processes of negotiation and discussion between workers and their employers.

"I know it is not easy to get along in an increasingly competitive world, but it is worse to allow the competitive world to determine the destiny of the people," said Francis. "Profit and capital are not a good over and above the human person; they are at the service of the common good."

"When the common good is used only in the service of profit and capital, the only thing gained is known as exclusion," he said.

Francis is concluding a six-day visit to Mexico Wednesday. Later in the day he will celebrate a public Mass just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, where is expected to raise the issue of the treatment of Mexican immigrants to the U.S.

While in Mexico, the pontiff has traveled to different communities in the country's south, west and north, speaking to particular concerns facing each region.

In the southern state of Chiapas Monday, where many of Mexico's indigenous peoples live, the pope decried their historic treatment by Spanish and then Mexican governments -- saying they had been "misunderstood and excluded" from society and treated inferior to others.

In the central city of Morelia Tuesday, which has been wrought by destruction by drug cartel violence, the pontiff movingly asked Catholic priests and religious to not give up on building a better society even in the face of "paralyzing injustice."

Francis returns to Rome Wednesday evening.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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