Does the United States need to adapt ideas about labor from Pope Leo XII?


Morgan Hudgins Period 2

When looking down at your perfect, new, and sleek iPhone, sipping on your favorite drink from Starbucks, or leaving that event in an Uber, you may not realize some of harsh conditions workers had to go through in order to provide that good or service. While living in the United Sates, we often become desensitized forget how bad working conditions are overseas, and right here on our own soil. How would you define good work conditions? Pope Leo XIII describes the relationship between the employer and employee as “not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person…[the employer’s] great and principal duty is to give everyone what is just,” in his Rerum Novarum. With this being said, why don’t US companies and companies worldwide implement the ideas expressed by Pope Leo XIII?

What about the question of how employees should treat employers? Employers have less but equally as important duties compared to the employer for the employee, such as “never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and have nothing to do with men of evil principles,” according to Pope Leo XIII.[1] Pope Leo XIII’s ideas on the relationship between employers and employees are ideas that can and should be implemented into the labor force in the United States all around the world. Although, Pope Leo XIII’s views in the Rerum Novarum are that of Christianity, the overarching themes and points regarding labor, are universal to all humankind and morals. Pope Leo XIII’s thoughts on labor can be implemented in the United States and around the world, if both sides compromise and understand both sides of the situation. The United States does not just need more jobs; they need to provide better jobs.

Companies are scared to take the plunge of better labor conditions because this could drive the cost of production up and cause their profit to fall. The assumption is that as more is invested in the employer, the more the customer will have to pay. This is a common misconception companies tend to believe. This common belief is not always true, the tradeoff between providing employees with better labor practices and low prices, can be broken. Companies that treat their workers better end up having positive gains such as profit. Four companies serve as prime examples of the benefits of treating employees better: Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip and Mercadona. All of these companies are known for their excellent labor practices, while keeping prices low, and still gaining a sizable profit. Not only do the common misconceptions of investing in workers cause companies to stray away from this practice, but also the idea of once managers are granted certain powers, they continue to practice poor labor practices because that is what is engrained in their minds. Companies view labor as the biggest controlled expense they have so they try to keep costs as low as possible for employee investment. In addition, employee investment is viewed as a cost driver instead of a sales driver. Often times, companies focus on the short run in terms of labor, meaning: when sales drop, managers immediately feel pressure to cut down on payroll and reduce staffing. The financial impact of reducing staffing is direct and immediate but fails to consider the long term impact. A lot of times the mindset is that once sales decrease, employees must be cut in order for the profits to boost, this is not always true. A prime example of such a situation is Home Depot. In 2000 the CEO of Home Depot cut staffing and increased the number of employees working part-time in order to reduce costs and boosts sales, this change had the opposite impact. Although these changes caused a positive impact initially and for the short term, the long term was impacted by this decision. As time went by, Home Depot’s reputation for having superb customer service plummeted along with their sales-growth which later dropped all the way into the negatives at a point. The sales ended dropping because the employees were not as dedicated and motivated to working hard because the labor conditions were not as good as they could have been in order to strike more of an incentive to work harder. The example of Home Depot is often times the same for many other companies. Companies will do whatever it takes in order the alleviate the stress of having to meet the short-term performance targets, which means cutting staff with the remaining staff cutting corners, making mistakes, and lacking motivation to complete the job.

From 1999 to 2002, Borders, a popular bookstore chain at the time, increased their profit margin by 10% due to increase in labor. Researchers found that for every dollar a retailer increase payroll, there could be a $4 to $28 increase for monthly sales. Businesses are able to improve the conditions for workers and still improve their own profit margin and sales. The duties of employers for workers such as “he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings… the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength… to defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime,” as expressed by Pope Leo XIII are duties that should be practiced by US companies, who are more than capable of doing such action. Labor practices, operational execution, and the success of sales are all directly related. Employees are needed for operational execution, which helps increase the sales of a company. More employers who are trained more extensively and know what they are doing will help with an increase in sales. Mercadona, QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s, and Costco are all companies that treat their employs well but still make multibillion dollar sales every year. These companies provide their employees with higher pay, fuller training, better benefits, and more convenient schedules than their counterparts. In addition, all of these companies still manage to keep their prices low, have less turnover rates, and have excellent customer service.[2]

Changes need to be made for the treatment of workers in other countries, but changes also need to be made right here in the United States of America. Almost one out of five Americans endures “bad jobs.” “Bad jobs” would be companies that provide low wages, poor benefits, schedules that change with little notice or any at all, and few opportunities to advance in the company to their workers. Several of the large companies that many people love have awful conditions for their workers overseas and in America. Large corporations such as Apple, Victoria’s Secret, Urban Outfitters, Nike, and more all perform awful labor practices overseas for goods needed to create their brands. Urban Outfitters uses slave labor in Uzbekistan for the cotton for their clothing, Victoria’s Secret purchases “fair trade” cotton that is not very fair from Burkina Faso, Africa, both of the companies have brushed off any of the confrontations about their labor practices.[3]  Apple has factory workers in China who have said to be exploited and have gone on strikes due to being mistreated. [4]Companies such as Starbucks and Uber have mistreated their employees in the United States. Starbucks has tried to improve their labor practices such as providing better scheduling but have fallen short in carrying this out. Definite laws and regulations should be formed in regard to fair labor practices that are carried out and enforced. [5]

Finally, the United States is country that would benefit from practicing better labor practices as expressed in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. Although the Rerum Novarum was written in the late 1800s, the content is still relevant today. If the United States is able to transform their rules and regulations regarding labor to be more aligned with the ideas of Pope Leo XIII, it would transform the way labor is viewed all over the world because the United States has factories in other countries and improving the labor within the country would help the economy and serve as an example for the rest of the world.

1 Leo XIII, Pope. “Rerum Novarum (May 15, 1891) | LEO XIII.” Rerum Novarum Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor. May 15, 1891. Accessed December 5, 2015

[2] Ton, Zeynep. “Why “Good Jobs” Are Good for Retailers.” Harvard Business Review. 2012. Accessed December 5, 2015.

[3] Hastley, Gerri. “5 Giant Companies Who Use Slave Labor.” Business Pundit. May 1, 2012. Accessed December 5, 2015.

[4] Prein, Aschwin. “Why Apple’s Labor Practices May Never Improve.” CBSNews. Accessed December 5, 2015.

[5] Scheiber, Noam. “Starbucks Falls Short After Pledging Better Labor Practices.” The New York Times. September 23, 2015. Accessed December 5, 2015.

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