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Dignity of Workers and Vocation of Employers

The first of May is International Workers’ Day. Since 1955, the Catholic Church also dedicated 1 May to Saint Joseph the Worker who is the patron saint of workers and craftsmen, among others.

In Hong Kong, in the past, large-scale public rallies, processions and assemblies were organized on this day. Workers and supporters expressed their concerns and strike for workers’ rights through different activities. I also joined some of these activities organized by the Catholic groups. However, in the past two years, due to the pandemic, all public gatherings, including the Workers’ Day rallies, were banned. And this year, no such activity was allowed due to security reasons. The authority said that public rallies might be hijacked and turned into riots. In fact, in the past two years, the largest confederation of labor unions in Hong Kong and a number of workers’ organizations and civil groups were dissolved; some workers’ rights activists were arrested and put in jail due to unlawful assembly.[1] Many people worry that it would be more and more difficult to voice out the workers’ problems through collective actions.

Although public assembly was prohibited, the Hong Kong Catholic Labor Affairs Commission tried to continue the spirit of the Labor Day through alternative means, such as bringing out the message in a Mass celebrating the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Moreover, a banquet dinner was held to treat the low-income workers, including the cleaning workers, security guards and workers from the ethnic minorities sector of the society, who are active members of the various Catholic pastoral centers for workers. During the dinner, a short play was performed by the security guards, showing the real-life experiences of their working conditions, allowing us to understand better the challenges they face.

Apart from the security guards, the cleaning workers who are one of the groups being seriously exploited are one of the main concerns of the pastoral centers. Many elderly cleaners are women who work hard for the city but earn the least salary, only the minimum wage of HK$40 (about US$5) per hour, and receive not enough respect from the public. Since many of them have received hardly any education and find it difficult to get other jobs, they have less bargaining power. According to the Hong Kong Women Workers Association, most of the outsourced cleaners are older women, some as old as seventy.[2] These elderly people should enjoy their old age comfortably, but instead they need to work because of poverty, and their income return is not good at all. The salary level can hardly reflect their hard work, nor can the wage allow them to live a dignified life. This level of wages reflects the problem of wealth inequality and wage-setting policies in which some people accumulate a lot and others receive too little. Some scholars point out that one of the reasons for the long-lasting poverty problem in Hong Kong is exactly the low-level income of many workers, especially those working under the outsource system.

In the Message of The Fifth World Day of the Poor (2021), Pope Francis emphasizes that “the Gospel summons us to display special concern for the poor and to recognize the varied and excessive forms of moral and social disorder that are generating ever new forms of poverty.” He argues that the existing market economy ignores ethical principles, seeing the poor as burden of the society and focusing on the interests of a few privileged groups. The economic and financial actors in such an economic system exclude poor people, creating inhumane conditions for people already in precarious situations, thus, lacking a humanitarian sense and social responsibility.[3]

In September 2022, in the 109th International Labor Conference, Pope Francis mentioned that he sent a message to employers and businessmen, reminding them that their vocation is to produce wealth for the services of all. He also stated that business ventures must always be aimed at the development of others and the elimination of poverty, especially through the creation of diversified job opportunities.[4]

Since work is an expression of workers’ dignity as human beings, respect for their dignity demands that they be seen and be able to grow as human beings through their work. Based on the nature of human persons and their transcendent dignity, human persons are the subjects of work and they are superior to every other factor connected with productivity. Theyshould not be considered as a simple commodity or an impersonal element of the apparatus for productivity. Labor has an intrinsic priority over capital (Laborem Exercens, 6, 12). Such dignity demands the right to work and the rights of workers, including a just wage and an appropriate working environment (Rerum Novarum, 31-32; Laborem Exercens, 19).

In the document Vocation of the Business Leader, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2012,[5] a series of questions were proposed to the business leaders and employers for their reflection, which are still relevant today. Some of these questions are:

  • Am I making sure that the company provides safe working conditions, living wages, training, and the opportunity for employees to organize themselves? Do I place the dignity of all workers above profit margins?
  • As a Christian business leader, am I promoting human dignity and the common good in my sphere of influence?
  • Am I supporting the culture of life; justice; international regulations; transparency; civic, environmental, and labor standards; and the fight against corruption?
  • Am I promoting the integral development of the person in my workplace?

The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker not only reminds us that the relationship or negotiation between workers and employers must be based on respect. The governments definitely have a role and responsibility in affirming the right to work and protecting workers from exploitation, as well as encouraging employers fulfill their social responsibilities through relevant economic and social policies. All of us who benefit from the workers should pay more respect and gratitude to them   who work hard to contribute to the city.


[1] Chris Lau, “Hong Kong’s Largest Opposition Trade Union Group Set to Disband, with Leaders Beginning Process of Dissolution,” SCMP, September 17, 2021. Retrieved from; “Timeline: 58 Hong Kong Civil Society Groups Disband Following the Onset of the Security Law,” Hong Kong Free Press, June 30, 2022. Retrieved from

[2] Sammy Heung, “Hong Kong’s Waste Pickers Deserve More Respect and Better Conditions, Women’s Group says as it Prepares Drive to Change Public Attitudes,” SCMP, October 17, 2021.

[3] Pope Francis, Message of The Fifth World Day of the Poor, 2021, no. 4-5.

[4] “Pope Francis at the ILO: The Future of Work and Dignity of Labour,” Building and Wood Workers International. Retrieved from

[5] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Vocation of the Business Leader (2021), 27. Retrieved from