Pope Leo XIII and China?

Katie  O’Hagan- Period 5- Ursuline

If I were to ask any person this simple question:  “What do Pope Leo XIII and the country of China have in common?” it would most likely baffle a large quantity of people due to its overall complexity. I assume that many people would attempt to come up with an answer, but in the end, would not be able to find one due to them having little to no prior knowledge concerning Pope Leo XIII. Others might deliberate that the only real connection the two have is that the Pope constantly cared for so many people across the world and that China has an extremely large population that needs to be taken care of.  Although true, that is not why they connect so perfectly.

In 1891, there was a noticeable amount of differences regarding the wealth of people across the nations. This caught the immediate attention of Pope Leo XIII, and thus he wrote the Encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum. Pope truly believed that the problems that society faced could only be solved by instilling Christian life into all people.  The Encyclical he composed depicted his many areas of concern including, the balance between the topic of labor and capital, the rights and duties of laborers, and how the state should properly function. He noticeably saw mistreatment and poverty of workers. [1]These concerns can be directly correlated to the issues that are constantly found in the labor practices of China. Unfortunately, even in 2015, the workers in China find constant oppression in their daily lives because of these harsh conditions.

Pope Leo XIII states, “It is no easy matter to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labour. And the danger lies in this, that crafty agitators are intent on making use of these differences of opinion to pervert men’s judgments and to stir up the people to revolt” [2]By declaring this, it is understandable that capital, also known as the wealth of a country, and labor need to coincide with one another in order to have a functioning and well maintained work environment. The balance of the two is absolutely essential for smooth operating and good order.  In section 20 of the Encyclical, Pope describes the many different reasons why it is important that those employed in a business fulfill their duties. To begin, the worker must always finish the job that they have promised to complete. Next, they must respect the place of business by not damaging property or creating trouble. Lastly, the employee must “have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss.” [3]Although if one works for a company, they have to follow the rules that their employer assigns to them, it is also extremely important that their employers maintain and follow certain duties as well. To be a respectable employer, it is crucial that they treat their workers with dignity. They are NOT just a factor of production; they are working so they can gain a profit to benefit them with their lives. In relation to profits, they must give their workers the wages that they deserve. Pope Leo XII makes it clear that the workers must receive a profit that can help with their daily needs. Lastly, employers also must remember to refrain from giving them work that is beyond their ability. [4]

China has been known for many years as an enticing country for corporations to operate. This is so because of all of the low wage rates and the law that people cannot form trade unions. For some time, China has maintained a terrible reputation of not meeting international labor law standards. Many companies and organizations completely disregard the ethics spoken about in Rerum Novarum. There are no laws stating that workers can “bargain” with their employees. [5]Although it is not allowed, the workers of large companies form and become active in labor unions, meaning that they negotiate receiving fairer wages and improved working conditions. The International Trade Union Confederation states,” Workers do not have the right to organize in trade unions of their choice.  Legal trade unions have to be affiliated to the ACFTU and accept its control.  Although there have been some efforts to establish collective wage consultation systems, the right to collective bargaining is restricted as is the right to strike, both in law and in practice.  The lack of proper representation is reflected in the number of protests and labor disputes that have been rising over the years.” [6]This upsets many workers, which is why they do not adhere to it.

Foxconn is a company that partners with Apple Electronics. It is one of the largest sources of employment for those in need of a job in China. The company employs over 1.2 million people. This job may seem like a wonderful opportunity to receive a decent profit in order to help support one’s family; however, this is not the case. Pope Leo XIII’s statements regarding how workers should be properly treated by an employer are completely disregarded by this particular Chinese workforce. Workers are supposed to be treated with dignity and respect, but Foxconn management controls basically every aspect of their worker’s lives. People have to work unnecessary long shifts with unthinkable hours. [7]It has been known that employees have fallen asleep on their twelve hour shifts because of utter exhaustion. Laborers’ hours usually exceed sixty hours per week. To put this in perspective, the average person works around forty hours a week. One worker at Foxconn once had to work eighteen days in a row. In many cases they have absolutely no say in their hours, cannot reject working night shifts, and have to do all twelve hours while standing up. These absurd conditions, however, are only the beginning of the tragic lives these Chinese workers have to live.  [8]

Because Foxconn is known as the upmost employer in all of China, it has a greater authority than most local establishments. What this means is that since it is making so much revenue and has so many employees, it is hard for outsider businesses to alter the way it treats its employees. The management controls everyone at all times no matter what the circumstances are. The proprietors make sure that the company is watched after by military-like security forces to ensure privacy at all times. Keeping privacy in mind, the management also interferes with the worker’s privacy and their lives outside of the company.  In relation to this, in Rerum Novarum, the document declares that companies should not interfere with the worker’s personal lives. [9]

In regards to the conditions they work in, it is not always a pleasant place to spend a large amount of time. The factories are packed with people, resulting in little room for the employees. China is also a country that is very susceptible to being exposed to water and air pollution, which leads to the worker’s downgrading health. In outsized factories, there is a significant amount of machinery being used, which leads to disturbing odors that may affect people’s respiratory problems. There are so many untreated problems associated with the environment that workers spend the majority of their lives in.  These conditions are unsafe, against Pope’s teaching, and have  little positive outcome. [10]

            I think the employer’s in China would benefit tremendously if they all took their time and read Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical, Rerum Novarum. The workforce in China is contradicting and disobeying almost every point Pope makes in his writing. The workers are being treated so terribly and deserve better wages, working conditions, and an overall better life.




[1]  “Rerum Novarum.” Pope Leo XIII in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, ed. Mr. Aparicio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

[2] “Rerum Novarum.”

[3] “Rerum Novarum.”

[4] “Rerum Novarum.”

[5] “Labor Rights in China.” AFL-CIO.. http://www.aflcio.org/Issues/Trade/China/Labor-Rights-in-China. (December 8, 2015)

[6] “Labor Rights in China.”

[7] France-Presse, Agence. “Apple Under Fire Again for Working Conditions at Chinese Factories.” TheGuardian. December 19, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/dec/19/apple-under-fire-again-for-working-conditions-at-chinese-factories (December 8, 2015)

[8] “Foxconn: Working Conditions in Chinese Factories.” Facing Finance. http://www.facing-finance.org/en/database/cases/working-conditions-in-foxconn-factories-in-china/ (December 8, 2015)

[9] “Rerum Novarum”

[10] “Foxconn.”


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