Indian Catholic News

Church needs to renew workers movement: Priest

Trade unions controlled only the organized workers and 'used' them for political gain.

By Leo Fernando

Father Thomas Joseph, 92, has been associated with workers movement in India for more than six decades.

The Madras-Mylapore archdiocesan priest still recalls his meeting with late Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, founder of the workers movement, who he says continues to inspire him to fight for workers and their rights even now.

How did it all begin?

The nonagenarian priest says he was totally unprepared when his archdiocese appointed him workers’ chaplain in 1950. His only brief was to help in Catholic workers’ faith formation and organize them for their socio economic welfare.

“It was mainly to keep them away from communists,” he said with hindsight.

Inexperienced as he was, he began visiting workers’ families and their leaders. “I found workers helplessness and marginalized from one generation to the other.”

Trade unions controlled only the organized workers and used them for political purposes. And there was none to take care of the unorganized.

“I too felt helpless. My long years of formation did not help,” the priest explained. So, he attended a course in industrial relation at the Oxford University.

On his return in 1954, he joined Young Christian Workers movement that used the See-Judge-Act method to train leaders. “Cardijn’s method helped workers discover their vocation as apostles among the working class.”

By then, Father Joseph was in high demand with the Indian government and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) seeking his help.

The government wanted him to draft a syllabus for workers’ education program.

The workers’ movement led to CBCI to set up a commission for labor and appointed Fr. Joseph as its secretary.

“The Church realized that its employees needed a better treatment that the ‘Master Servant” relation that provided no job security or fixed hours of work. Appointment letters and leave facilities were unthinkable then.

“Hence my first task was to draft guidelines for employees in our institutions. The result was the official publication of “Personnel in Church related institutions,” the priest recalled.

His next mission was to undertake a national survey of domestic workers, mostly woman from poor families with little education. The government welcomed its report, but did nothing else for years.

Persistent efforts from the Church and other groups have resulted in “a vibrant domestic workers’ movement” now. Those workers are counted as the unorganized workers that the government now wants to help.

The priest also worked among “Sea farers.” Dioceses appointed chaplains to help when these people dock at the harbor. He also helped the local Church to address the problems of women engaged in fish processing.

All this led to a vibrant workers movement in India during 1960s and 1970s and most dioceses had its units.

“But in course of time I realized the movement closed down in one diocese after another,” he said.

Why? Because it spit at International level -- one at Brussels and the other at Rome. The Rome alone enjoyed the Vatican recognition.

Since the Indian unit was affiliated to the Brussels, many bishops ignored it. The CBCI tried to revive YCW but without much success.

Such setbacks do not dishearten Fr. Joseph. “There is still hope for a revival, if the clergy take a lead, as the methodology is still valid,” he says.

He sees “a sign for a big revival” in an international meeting that some former YCW leaders plan to organize at Bangkok in July.

However, he does not discount the challenges the workers movement faces from globalization. The Indian government, he says, has altered or suspended some basic labor laws to attract foreign investments and competition from technological superior new firms has forced some older ones to slowly wind up.

“The net result is that trade unions have become very weak and forbidden in some new companies. This must be an added reason for leadership training for the working class to help their unity.”

And what should the Church do?

Fr. Joseph says the Church should urgently review its mission among workers. It should teach them the Christian meaning of human labor as explained in Vatican II documents. He also wants the clergy to be convinced about the life and mission of the laity.

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