Neighbours at Work, Climate, Environmental Defenders, Yemen – 12 March 2016

In this week’s prayer email:

  • Short Notes: Climate, Environmental Defenders, Yemen
  • Loving God’s world: our neighbours at work

The need for good work is our focus this week – and it also figures in the week’s Revised Common Lectionary Gospel, which contains the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father’s forgiveness and generosity is manifested primarily in his treatment of his wayward child – but the young man’s musings also suggest that the older man maintains fair relationships with those who work for him: “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”

Pray that people in the UK and in other countries may have access to good work with fair remuneration and safe working conditions. And as International Women’s Day approaches, pray especially for increased justice for women in the working world.

Short Notes: Climate, Environmental Defenders, Yemen

  • There’s much that calls for prayer in recent developments around the climate – though also material for thanksgiving. Some commentators have focused on the spike in atmospheric temperatures for February, which soared 0.83 degrees centigrade over normal. While this isn’t the most reliable data, taken in tandem with the low extent of Arctic sea ice , concerns around the Greenland ice sheet, and four prior consecutive months of surface temperatures more than 1 degree over normal, it is a reminder of how urgent it is to take action to limit emissions.Please pray that all the warning signals we are experiencing will inspire governments, businesses and individuals to take action, especially action to speed up the drive for energy efficiency and less carbon-intensive energy generation. In particular:
    • Give thanks for the way that numerous EU governments pressed this week for the EU to up its emissions reduction targets in response to the Paris Agreement – and pray that such arguments are translated into action.
    • Give thanks, too, that China, which set energy consumption caps this week, is progressing more rapidly than expected in increasing energy efficiency – pray that this trend continues.
    • Pray for a meeting of the Canadian Prime Minister and US President this Thursday, from which news of further climate initiatives is anticipated.
    • And give thanks for the success in the UK of the Big Church Switch campaign, which is calling churches and individual Christians to change to renewable energy suppliers.
  • The assassination of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres has drawn attention to the disturbing level of violence against people seeking to protect sensitive lands and waters and to ensure that indigenous peoples are properly consulted about projects that may affect their territory.  Global Witness states that killings of environmental defenders averaged slightly more than 2 a week in 2014.Berta Cáceres, recently the winner of a prestigious international environmental award, was protesting a series of hydropower dams for which there had not been appropriate consultation; three of her colleagues had already been murdered, and the government had not acted on international calls to offer her protection.Please:
    • Pray for all who mourn Cáceres.
    • Pray for the safety of her colleague Gustavo Castro, who was with her and was injured in the assassination, and for wisdom and safety for environmental and human rights defenders worldwide.
    • Pray for an end to the culture of impunity in Honduras and many other countries, which creates an atmosphere in which violence can flourish.
    • And pray that governments everywhere will have an understanding of and respect for creation and the rights of indigenous peoples.Action Point: There’s a Spanish-language petition asking for protection for Gustavo Castro here. If you’re comfortable with Spanish, might you sign?
  • The murder of 16 people, including 4 nuns and volunteers, at a nursing home run by the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, Yemen, has provoked shock and condemnation around the world. It is also a reminder of the wider continued toll on civilians of Yemen’s conflict: the UN has recently stated that more than 80% of the Yemeni population is in need of some form of protection or humanitarian assistance.In a statement to the Security Council last week,  the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator said: “The most pressing concern today is the protection of civilians, millions of whom face relentless and often indiscriminate bombing and shelling of urban areas by the parties to the conflict every day … Protected places, such as hospitals, schools and homes continue to be hit by all parties … In the absence of a politically negotiated end to the conflict, the security situation across much of the country is rapidly deteriorating.”He called on the international community “to impress upon the parties to this conflict their obligations to take greater measures to protect civilians, to facilitate unconditional and sustained access to all parts of Yemen” and asked the Council “to press the parties to resume peace talks and agree to a cessation of hostilities.”

    The European Parliament recently called for an EU arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, which stands accused of targeting civilians in its air war against Houthi rebels.

    Please pray:

    • in thanksgiving for the courage and witness of those Christians who have continued to minister in that country despite the personal danger
    • for the safety of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, a Salesian priest from India, abducted during the attack, and for the superior of the Missionaries of Charity community, who escaped and is under police protection.
    • for all civilians suffering because of the conflict
    • that the international community will continue to press for protection, humanitarian access, and peace talks and will make progress in these areas with all parties to the conflict.

Loving God’s World: Our neighbours at work

What is good work?

This vital question underlies many of our current areas of concern. And this week, Fairtrade Fortnight and International Women’s Day (8 March) offer an interesting opportunity to reflect on it – and on some ways we can express love of God and neighbour in rediscovering the relationships at the heart of work.

In Christian teaching, work in its broadest sense is an integral part of much human life. Many point to the  creation accounts to show just how fundamental: man is put into the Garden of Eden “to work and to keep it,” and the early chapters of Genesis point to the fact that caring for creation and  ‘ruling’ over it as God’s stewards* are part of what makes human beings human.

Indeed, throughout the Old Testament, work is shown to be inherently relational at a number of levels.  Not only are the materials for work – whether physical resources or skills – gifts from God,  to whom we are responsible for our use of them. The law and the prophets also indicate that the right use of them – a use that provides good work –  involves provision for the needs of the self, family and community in a way that respects the humanity and interdependence of all within the community. Workers are to receive fair wages; all are to partake of the Sabbath rest; all are to be protected by the law; every fifty years the Jubilee is to restore all families’ access to the most fundamental resource – land; a certain percentage of the fruits of human labour are to be set aside to give thanks to God and to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves.

And yet, just as sin distorts all relationships, it distorts the relationships of work. The Old and New Testament show us a world in which, despite God’s commandments, people all too quickly prioritise not right relationship in work but the accumulation of power and goods. In place of the ideal, they are withholding workers’ wages, ignoring the Sabbath, pushing the land beyond its capacity, depriving those without power of their due rights, taking advantage of others’ misfortunes to aggregate assets, and hoarding what should be offered to God and others.

We recognise this world. We live in it. And we participate in its injustices, caught up in a system where the products of work are valued, but the people behind them often seem to be seen simply as units of production … and their needs – and the needs of the natural world – are what an economist might call an ‘externality’. And the potential for distorted relationships is amplified as  we become ever less likely personally to know the people who provide the goods and services we use. In particular, globalisation’s attenuated supply chains mean that we are unlikely ever to meet many of the people who grow the crops we eat, respond to the calls we place, or create the clothing and technology we use every day.

So how do we respond?

“Be careful,” the Church of Sweden once warned, “there are people in your shopping trolley.”

The slogan was on one of their posters supporting Fairtrade, and it got at the heart of the matter. Part of our calling as Christians is to refuse to allow ourselves to be focused simply on work’s products and the way they relate to our wants and needs, and instead to care as much as we can for the brothers and sisters whose labour provides them … as Dewi Hughes said, to recognise that our interaction with what people’s work produces makes them the ‘neighbours’ we are commanded to love.

Fair Trade

is one way of doing that. At its heart, Fair Trade is about restoring the human dimension to some of the most historically problematic working and trading relationships – those of small producers selling to often vastly more powerful marketers and retailers. Built into its standards – whether for Fairtrade products or Fair Trade organizations – is a commitment to paying a price for goods that relates to the costs of sustainable production, taking into account both people’s needs and the environment’s. But that’s not all: there’s also a commitment to prepayment so that producers don’t fall into debt, to the honouring of contracts and long-term partnerships, to ensuring safe working conditions and the right of people to organise and have input into their working conditions. There’s a ban on forced labour and a commitment to ending discrimination on the basis of gender. And there are environmental standards, which ensure that products don’t ‘cost the earth.’

When we buy a Fairtrade-labelled product, or any product from a Fair Trade Organization like Traidcraft or CafeDirect or Divine Chocolate, therefore, we’re signalling that we care enough about our neighbour to want to guarantee them ‘good work’.

That’s part of the success of Fair Trade. It’s not just about the roughly 5,000 Fairtrade products and £1.6 billion in Fairtrade retail sales in the UK … or the 1.65 million farmers, workers and producers who benefit from the international Fairtrade market and who last year received over 100 million Euros in Fairtrade premiums (in addition to the price they received for their goods).

It’s not just about the maternity clinics and mobile clinics and new forms of industry and wheelchairs for the elderly and computer classrooms and electrification schemes that Fairtrade has enabled producer groups to fund.

It’s also about the wider change in perceptions. Fair Trade’s growth has shaken conventional economics’ view that we are selfish beings who care only about our wants and price. It’s showed that where people have enough disposable income to have choices, love of neighbour can be a factor in the way we choose to allocate our spending.

Looking more broadly …

what are other ways in which we can look beyond the products of labour to the people involved and help to ensure their wellbeing?

  • The garment industry employs significant numbers of people globally, and there are major issues around safe working conditions, the right to organise, and decent wages. Labour behind the Label, War on Wantand Fashion Revolution  ask us to raise awareness of the people involved in the sector – and to press for better conditions and wages. Could you visit one of their websites and participate in their campaigns?
  • Traidcraft was one of several agencies that led campaigning to get an independent supermarket ‘watchdog’ to monitor major retailers’ treatment of suppliers. They continue to draw attention to the downward pressure supermarkets exert on suppliers, which has a major impact on the people at the bottom of the supply chain both in the UK and in other countries.Recent controversies in this area have focused on UK milk prices, with a parliamentary committee report on farmgate prices noting: “We question assurance from the retail sector that there is no link between the price at which supermarkets sell to their customers and the price supermarkets pay to farmers … the chronic low price of milk sold through supermarkets inevitably disadvantages farmers in the longer term. Supermarkets may choose to sell milk cheaply as a loss leader, but farmers must not be the victims of the supermarket wars currently taking place in the UK. Progress is uneven amongst supermarkets and assurances must be met with action.”Could you check with your supermarket to find out what price they give farmers for milk? Might you support retailers (or special schemes, such as Morrison’s Milk for Farmers) that seek to give a higher amount to farmers?
  • The Living Wage campaign certifies employers who choose to pay their staff a wage that is calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK. On their website, you can check to see who is a living wage employer. If an entity with which you regularly interact isn’t one, could you encourage them to become one? If you have a pension, ShareAction has an easy way for you to ask your pension fund to press the companies in which it invests on this topic. You might also want to hold an event to raise awareness of the concept.
  • The right of workers to organise and bargain collectively is enshrined in an international convention which the UK and European countries have all ratified. But not all countries have ratified the convention, and there are many where despite the ratification, those who lead protests against poor working conditions face significant harrassment and threats. The International TUC named ten countries as the world’s worst for systematic violations of workers’ rights: one of these was Colombia. Could you join in Justice for Colombia’s campaign action on behalf of a ‘disappeared’ trade unionist?
  • Two groups which are often subject to injustice in the UK are immigrant domestic workers and care workers. Could you ask members of the House of Lords to support Lord Hylton’s amendments to the Immigration Bill, which are designed to keep immigrant domestic workers from being tied to abusive employers?
  • Support people who are seeking to create good jobs, especially for the most marginalised. Perhaps this is something you can do in your work. Charities are also beginning to work with the private sector: a new initiative from Christian Aid, Traidcraft, Practical Action, Twin and Challenges Worldwide links investors with small and medium enterprises in rural areas that have the potential to grow.

*Many environmental theologians emphasise that the term ‘rule’ or ‘dominion’ would have expressed stewardship  and a duty of care as well as power.