Rerum Novarum and the Garment Industry

Eliza Palter

Period 6


The fashion and clothing industry in America is completely dependent on the work of other nations. Time after time, work and production is outsourced to distant countries with less stable economies, all in the name of profit and “progress”. However, no apparent progress is made in the countries to which the US outsources. Time after time, serious laws and regulations are broken, ignored, or not instated in the first place in the workplace of these countries. The workers are abused, the infrastructure is unstable, and the wages are minuscule compared to the standards to which the U.S upholds their businesses and factories. By allowing and actively encouraging this kind of capitalism through its support, the U.S takes little from the work of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. And though America claims ideals of freedom and equality, it’s constant disregard and abuse of the garment industries in struggling countries negates these concepts and works to exploit thousands of people worldwide.

A recent factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh led to the death of over one thousand workers, and though most factory fires in the past were caused by a disregard of factory rules and expectations by managers and corporate manufacturing heads, this one was different. The standards of this factory were up to par with what is usually expected of a garment factory in Bangladesh. [1] How then, can working conditions be anything but doomed to fail if a genuine example of “standard conditions” led to the death of thousands? As Pope Leo XIII upholds in Rerum Novarum, the dignity of the human person stems from God’s image in man. Just as God gives life, so can humanity. Just as God is eternal, each member of humanity has an eternal soul that yearns for the peace found within Heaven. No one man has more of a soul, or more of a capacity to love than another. By outsourcing most clothing production to countries like Bangladesh, companies disregard their employee’s dignity and fail to uphold the values necessary to achieve their own. [2]

Pope Leo XIII does not perceive the common good as concrete, material progress, but rather the ability of a man to ameliorate his virtuous capabilities. He very clearly states that, “[i]t is in his power to exercise his choice not only as to matters that regard his present welfare, but also about those which he deems may be for his advantage in time yet to come.” By placing the weight of a society’s worth on the goodness of its people, Pope Leo XIII refutes the definition of “common good” put to use by companies who outsource production to Bangladesh. Yes, manufacturing rates and profits will increase while cost of production will decrease, but that concept of common good (the common good of a particular company, followed by the common good of a particular capitalist society) does nothing to better the virtue of man. In fact, its nature does damage to man’s spiritual good, therein negating any seemingly positive effects of profit gain. The fire in the garment factory was nowhere near surprising. Just in the preceding months alone, the country has faced numerous disasters. One devastating fire should be enough to inform the overseers that their practices are dangerous, yet they continue, with no apparent end in sight. By refusing to act, these companies not only disregard the dignity of their employees who have already been killed, but also ignore the good they should be trying to achieve, a good that becomes more and more apparent. [3]


Bangladeshi civilian volunteers assist in rescue operations after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on April 24, 2013. At least 15 people were killed and many more feared dead when an eight-storey building housing a market and garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh on Wednesday, officials said. AFP PHOTO/Munir uz ZAMAN (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Following the deaths and injuries of the fire, the international business community “pledged to work to improve safety standards,” but after a two year period, a mere eight of the original 3,425 had acted on their promise and improved their facilities and factory standards. This directly combats the Pope’s plea for subsidiarity in the workplace. Even though the business community claims to stand together on improving these conditions, this vow’s lack of effectiveness only further proves a need for subsidiarity. If these issues were allowed to be handled solely by those who work directly at each of these factories, and are affected by the conditions each day, these conditions would likely be taken much more seriously, and would certainly improve. [4] Furthermore, the aftermath of the fire, the preceding court dates and rulings, placed blame on over forty individuals for this one factory fire. From the building’s owners to the Mayor of Dhaka, individuals were held responsible for the factory fire, many of whom were not aware they were directly affecting that particular factory to begin with. Because this particular building is the result of many, many far-removed individuals and not just the few that actually interacted with it and knew it closely, the consequences of the disaster took much longer to enforce and were much more difficult to assign. [5] Subsidiarity is not only a pillar of social justice to Pope Leo XIII, it is a serious method to improve both living conditions and procedural matters. [6]

It is not difficult to forget about the reality of working conditions in many countries today. It is seemingly far-removed and “foreign,” but to see a country like Bangladesh and the workers who make their living there as such is to completely disregard the concept of solidarity. Pope Leo XIII encourages solidarity within humanity because it enforces a healthier standard of living. And though this notion may seem initially idealistic, in the context of two countries separated by thousands of miles, it must not be forgotten. Without a common sense of caring and understanding, humanity risks international disconnection, which would inevitably lead to the destruction of country-to-country deals and trade practices. This could have a major effect on the global economy. Empathy and understanding are truly crucial to the development of international relationships and the betterment of any given economy. [7]

If the pillars of social justice that Pope Leo XIII establishes in Rerum Novarum were actively pursued and applied to the harsh living conditions of these factories, humanity would be genuinely better off. Though cheap is frequently seen as the best option in our ever-globalizing capitalist society, if humanity turns its focus to the betterment of humankind, the global economy realizes an entirely new definition of “wealth.” Rather than simply the accumulation of money, wealth becomes the active pursuit and achievement of an improved individual life for all. If the teachings of Rerum Novarum were implemented in the Bangladeshi factory, if the structure was stronger, if corporate cared more for its employees, if it was all so selfishly driven, perhaps the one thousand lives would have been saved. True wealth in the world focuses on a benevolent and empathetic people who care more for each other than for profit. [8]

[1] Burke, Jason. “Bangladesh Factory Fires: Fashion Industry’s Latest Crisis.” The Guardian. 2013. Accessed May 01, 2016.

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

[3] Pope Leo XII, Rerum Novarum

[4] Harris, Gardiner. “Bangladeshi Factory Owners Charged in Fire That Killed 112.” The New York Times. 2013. Accessed May 02, 2016.

[5] “Bangladesh Factory Collapse Toll Passes 1,000.” BBC News. Accessed May 02, 2016.

[6] Pope Leo XII, Rerum Novarum

[7] Pope Leo XII, Rerum Novarum

[8] Pope Leo XII, Rerum Novarum



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