President Duterte’s recent veto of the security of tenure bill, which dashed the hopes of thousands of contractual employees, was disappointing but not entirely surprising. After all, this controversial issue has dogged the nation for decades despite the pledges of past administrations to tackle it. While the President has been vilified by labor groups for his decision, responsibility for this failure does not lie solely on his shoulders. What this development calls for is deeper self-examination into how we as a nation have failed to do justice for our working poor.
A sentence from the joint statement issued by leading business groups in support of the veto was particularly striking: “Job contracting as an exercise of management prerogative and business judgment is anchored on two constitutional rights: right and freedom to contract, and right to property.” The issue is phrased in terms of defense of rights. But one can immediately see that these rights claimed by business owners come into conflict with the rights of workers. A simple statement of the latter’s rights can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23(3): “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity…”
Whether or not these rights of contractual workers are currently fulfilled is for the proper authorities to determine. What I do want to offer, as we consider the rights of management on one hand and those of workers on the other, is a perspective drawn from Catholic social teaching on the right to property.
Catholic social teaching — often called “the best-kept secret of the Church” — is a tradition of papal reflection and social commentary on how we live the gospel in the world. Interestingly, while the right to property has been recognized by the Popes, it is seen not as a “supreme and unconditional right,” for “no one is allowed to set aside solely for [their] own advantage possessions which exceed [their] needs when others lack the necessities of life” (Populorum Progressio). This is a stark and challenging principle. The underlying reason for it is that “[t]he right to private property is subordinate to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone” (Laborem Exercens).
How does this principle apply in our current debate, where what is at stake is the “security of capital” of business (as President Duterte has described it), and the economic survival of the working poor?
Perhaps more interestingly, we might go beyond the present debate and ask: How does this principle play out in our own personal lives? Many of us may find ourselves in positions of privilege in society, with living standards well above the hard up conditions that too many of our fellow citizens endure. How comfortable do we feel in our homes, awash with possessions many of which we do not need, behind high walls designed to keep out the have-nots? How comfortable do we feel with the trappings of ease that we have come to take for granted as part of modern living, while the vast majority of people in the world struggle to survive from day to day?
Those of us who are Catholic might also consider how we are living out the call of Catholic social teaching. Are we satisfied with offering ritual obligations during Sunday Mass, or can we be open to the radical demands of our faith — that is, to live simply with regard to the poor among us? And do those of us who purport to teach and preach the faith content ourselves with doctrine and orthodoxy, or do we take the risk to be prophetic voices challenging social injustice in the world?
These are difficult questions that, if we are honest with ourselves, stir up in us what Pope Francis calls “a constant and healthy unease” (Gaudete et Exsultate). Let this unease not discourage us, but urge us rather to conversion, to remembering the figure of Jesus, a carpenter who earned his living by the work of his hands and counted himself among the poor of the earth.
May we see him in the working poor who wear his face today.
Jose Ignacio Reyes is a fellow at the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues. This article first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Photo: AP.