In the sphere of economics … new structures for the production of consumer goods had progressively taken shape. A new form of property had appeared—capital; and a new form of labor—labor for wages, characterized by high rates of production which lacked due regard for sex, age or family situation, and were determined solely by efficiency, with a view to increasing profits.
Such was the interpretation of Pope John Paul II on the renowned encyclical Rerum Novarum. Albeit a century old, this illustration of the trampled worker still holds true today. Workers, for the most part, are still seen as the means to an end, as a function of profit. Modernization increased the likelihood of perpetuating and even magnifying the sordid worker conditions Pope Leo XIII spoke of a hundred years ago. While capitalism ushered in the growth Marxian economic theorists wrote extensively about, it has failed to consider its negative and rather degrading effects on the individual worker.
The Philippines is no stranger to this phenomenon. Known for its large and youthful population, the country has long since been a constant source of cheap labor both by foreign and local businesses. As the higher income classes benefit from the growing economy, a large number of urban workers still clamor to earn minimum wage and contractual employees constantly threatened by unemployment. At the same time, agricultural workers in the provinces and rural areas continue to be deprived of the necessary resources to develop their livelihoods. They are not deemed as important as the service-sector worker who, from a capitalist perspective, contributes more to national income. In a country that teeters precariously between a service-oriented modern sector and a traditional agricultural sector, it comes not as a surprise that while the average urban worker endures the pains of “superexploitation,” the rural worker is unwittingly cast aside.
As different as the experience of the urban and rural Filipino worker might be, one thing becomes certain: the disregard for the worker’s dignity remains. The Filipino worker, in the exploitation of his capabilities, is alienated from his work time and time again. He merely becomes a function of a larger production equation. The right to flourish and find excellence in a chosen trade is lost amidst the desire to maintain a means to subsistence, often irretrievably for those situated in absolute poverty.
As long as growth is seen in terms of economic figures and aggregate data, the burden of the average Filipino worker will persist. The disregard for his dignity and rights cannot be eradicated, at least to a certain extent, unless a different, more person-centered approach to development—similar to the kind WYA heavily advocates—is integrated into Philippine society. It is only through empowering workers, in enabling them instead of constricting and ultimately, in recognizing their worth that true development can take place.
While it seems like an idealistic and rather impossible task, I believe that the country is not without hope in this novel undertaking. Over the past few years, there has been gradual yet indisputable progress being made in the field of worker empowerment and poverty alleviation in the country. In this, I speak of no other than the rise of social entrepreneurship.
Defined as harnessing innovation and technology towards addressing social problems and initiating widespread change, social entrepreneurship has largely changed the way Philippine businesses are done. Gone are the days when profit was the only thing that mattered. Social enterprises are now ushering in an era where Filipino workers take center stage, where their individual value and worth—their dignity—is upheld, not trampled upon. Of course, their work is all but finished. In order to achieve sustainability, they must inspire Filipinos from all over the nation, especially the youth, to come together in solidarity towards a nation building of the feasible kind.
We might be far from ridding the nation, and the world, completely of the condition Pope Leo XII and Pope John Paul II talked about. Regardless, the advent of social entrepreneurship brings me hope that their writings have not been made in vain.
Written by Kim Louise Vidal, current intern at the WYA Asia Pacific office. The writings of Pope Leo XII and St. Pope John Paul II on the dignity of the worker are discussed in WYA’s Track A Training.