The struggle to recognize natural human rights

By: Kristen Banul, period 06

It’s no secret that the United States is one of the economic powerhouses in the world: as of 2014, its economy is the 12th freest in the world, with a hefty score of 75.5.This puts the United states 15.2 points above the global average. Although this number has fluctuated in the past, the market is, overall, a free ballpark for both consumers and producers. [1] With this freedom comes relative flexibility concerning trade from outside countries. Although the United States has its fair share of regulations, there is, overall, no true difficulty in importing and exporting goods. This freedom and flexibility, however, does come with the price of “off the records” imports of goods that may have been produced by sources and methods that do not exactly chalk up to basic human rights, or the laws of the United States. Often these violations of human rights and the law are either overlooked or deceptively kept in the dark, in order to maintain a good profit. Furthermore, the United States population doesn’t seem to be necessarily hurt directly by these methods of import: consumers buy these goods and are satisfied with the result, leading to a win for the customer, and a win for the company. But, what about the worker, in this case? Is there really no harm done? If the method in which a product is produced does not coincide with the basic human labor rights proposed by Pope Leo XIII, but still benefits the consumer and the producer, does the injustice of the worker pale in importance to the benefit of the sale, and is there really no negative impact, besides the worker’s struggle?

There are plenty of companies in foreign countries that the United States imports from that treat their workers very poorly. Although the United States has laws put forth to help protect the dignity of the employee, other countries do not have these same laws, allowing the companies the freedom to put their workers through less than ideal conditions. There are companies in countries, for example, that enlist a child workforce. Guatemala, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, India, and many other countries enlist children and pay them far below the minimum wage.[2] Walmart was recently under scrutiny for the import of shrimp that came as a direct result of child labor in Bangladesh.[3] Old navy was also accused of purchasing products from a child work force in Bangladesh.[4] Despite these injustices brought forth to public eye, people still continued to shop at Walmart and Old Navy, due to its cheap prices. Another example of a country offending general work ethic is China. Employees that work on IT brands statistically work up to 74 hours a week, and work overtime that accumulates to a range of 52-136 hours monthly. These workers also work with pay that’s less than minimum wage.[5]  The average wage for a Chinese factory worker is $1.36 an hour. To put that into perspective, the average hours worked per week by US citizens in the same industry only work 40 hours a week, with an average of 12 hours overtime monthly. The average wage of US factory workers, for comparison, is $23.32 an hour.[6]

There is no possible way to have a good quality of life and live off of a wage that is $1.36 an hour. To subject these workers to these conditions is to deprive them of the liberty to work for a wage that will keep them alive, all the while sustaining the producer by providing the work needed to produce the good, in order to keep them alive.[7] In the worker from China’s case, there is a huge injustice: while the CEO will be able to sustain a living, the worker will have to struggle for every penny and bit of property they own. Despite this injustice, companies in the United States still continue to import from Chinese companies. This is because the cost of labor is far cheaper when imported from a source like China. At the cost of human dignity, the company is able to make a larger profit, and consumers in America benefit from a cheaper price.

On one hand, these cheaper prices could be beneficial to the population of the United States. Affordable prices means better budgeting, and goods are more easily obtained. Everyone’s cost of living goes down, and their condition of life improves. For example, instead of buying a designer brand shirt for $100, ten shirts can be bought from Walmart at that same price. Thus, these companies make more and the consumers can afford to live. All of this came at the price of the labor provided by these disadvantaged workers. So, the supposed good that occurred is the result of an evil act. The situation of the consumer, however, still begs the question: why is it that these United States consumers can only afford to live off the disablement of an oppressed foreign working class? The answer is in the wages these consumers work themselves.

Although the average wage earned by the working class in the United States is substantially higher than a majority of the world, it’s still not enough to make up for the cost of living. The average cost of living in the United States for a family of five is $58,627 yearly.[8] The minimum wage in Texas is $7.25.[9] So, in order to meet that cost of living and to support a family of five, a person would have to work 8086 hours annually. That means a person would have to work 112 hours a week to meet this demand. Granted, not every case of the working family is like this. It can, however, easily be a reality for a lot of workers who are paid minimum wage. This then puts those in the working class at a disadvantage, and when in turn they need to buy products as consumers, they are forced to purchase goods that’re produced by unjust means, or not purchase goods at all. The same companies that purchase from poor labor settings are the same ones that disable their consumers to the point that they must resort to buying these goods.

In conclusion, the right to work should be available to everyone, provided the wages in return are fair for the labor put in. As a result, there are no goods produced by a method that goes against a code of morals. A socialist solution doesn’t work; it’s a person’s right to own whatever property they acquire through the wages earned by their labor. The ability to own and acquire property is a trait unique to mankind and mankind alone. Only the human race is able to truly indulge in the pleasures provided by property.To take away this natural right is to go against man’s true nature.[10] To say that it is man’s right to work for a wage agreed on by both the employee and the employer is only half of the equation. It is also the natural right of the employer to supply a wage that enables the employee to live a comfortable life. To go against this and provide a wage that doesn’t meet this natural right is to go against a human being’s nature and to commit a moral injustice. Although the United States’ society may seem to benefit from the purchase of goods procured from producing methods that go against a human being’s nature, the reality is it does more harm overall than good. If employers provided workers decent wages so that they could afford goods not made in sweatshops, then companies that own sweatshops would eventually start going out of business, due to their products not being sold. This solution is not foolproof, and banks on the idea that a company would give in to a moral standpoint to better society. Eventually, I personally think the guilt of purchasing these products would weigh too heavily on the conscience of many, and as a result, change would occur to better fit the natural rights spelled out by Pope Leo XIII. Hopefully, society will work to better itself, for the benefit of everyone in the future.

Works cited:

1. 2014 Index of Economic Freedom, “United States Economy: Population, GDP, unemployment, Inflation, Spending,” last modified January 2014, http://www.heritage.org/index/country/unitedstates.

2. The Child Labor Coalition, “Clothing – Stopchildlabor,” last modified February 4th, 2014, http://stopchildlabor.org/?cat=125.

3. Judy Molland, “Walmart Accused Of Using Child Labor At Shrimp Plant,” Care2, June 19th, 2013. http://www.care2.com/causes/walmart-accused-of-using-child-labor-at-shrimp-plant.html.

4. Dave Jamieson, “Gap Denies Connection To Bangladesh Factory That Employed Children In Al Jazeera Report,” Huffington Post, August 27th, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/27/gap-inc-old-navy-jeans-bangladesh_n_3822923.html.

5. Electronics watch, “Poor working conditions persist at Chinese suppliers of global IT-brands,” November 6th, 2013, http://electronicswatch.org/en/poor-working-conditions-persist-at-chinese-suppliers-of-global-it-brands_14704.

6. Bonnie Kavousi, “Average Cost Of A Factory Worker in the U.S., China And Germany [INFOGRAPHIC],” Huffington Post, March 19th, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/08/average-cost-factory-worker_n_1327413.html

7. Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII On Capital and Labor, print, May 5th, 1891, secs. 44-46.

8. FindtheBest, “National Average, United States Cost of Living,” 2013, http://cost-of-living.findthebest.com/l/615/National-Average.

9. National Conference of State Legislatures, “State Minimum Wages | 2014 Minimum Wage by State,” April 14th, 2014, http://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/state-minimum-wage-chart.aspx.

10. Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII On Capital and Labor, print, May 5th, 1891, sec. 5.

Photo credit: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_FfL6DeoF2Ww/SwUz2M1GjmI/AAAAAAAAExQ/s7pE9h6A0q0/s1600/chinese-chicken-factory.jpg

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One thought on “The struggle to recognize natural human rights

  1. Well written article, but there is an important question you never deal with: what would happen to all these foreign workers if we didn’t import the goods they produce? Would they be better off? An economist always has to consider the alternatives.

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