Today we celebrate Migrants’ Sunday. Part of our novices’ formation programme is to work with migrant workers, as migrant workers for about six weeks. As they experience the harshness of a migrant’s life, they begin to empathise with them more fully. They experience how people would walk by them as though they do not exist or as though they are “dogs” at the side of the streets.
Jesuit Novices living and working with migrants in Singapore for six weeks
as part of their formation programme
Our migrant workers are the poor and needy of our society. They leave their families and countries and work in foreign lands and cultures because they are desperate. Most have to support their families and relatives who are totally dependent on them. Many live in harsh conditions and have to risk exploitation, abuse and many forms of injustices.
In today’s celebration of Migrant Sunday, the Church wants to affirm that these migrant workers of ours are very important people of our society and Church. Jesus’ compassion towards the poor and needy is always total. In fact, He always has a “preferential love for the poor and needy.”
What does this mean? If a mother who has several children and one of them is sick, this is what will happen. While she does not love her other children less, she would naturally give her sick child more attention and affection. A good mother would also teach her other children to do likewise and to treat the sick child with special love, attention and affection.
Thus, today’s Gospel challenges each of us with the question, “How do we treat our needy migrant workers? More so if, they are living in our very homes” The first son in today’s Gospel said to his father, “No, I will not go, but eventually went and obeyed.” The second son said “Yes, Sir I will go to work but did not go.” While the first son is better than the second, both are not ideal sons. An ideal son would be one who would say, “Yes,” and also obey promptly, and serve faithfully, happily and wholeheartedly.
So it is for us. Would our “preferential love for the poor” be such a wholehearted, prompt, faithful and happy “yes” to the Lord’s challenge? Or, would our response be merely a lip service of praising the Lord with words and coming to Church, but not shown in concrete actions?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we have all read horror stories of how employers have abused their maids and migrant workers, and also how maids and migrant workers too have committed crimes that destroyed their employers’ families. These are all exceptions that we need not discuss here today.
What is important for us in today’s Migrant Workers’ Sunday celebration is to challenge ourselves to be exemplary Christian employers and employees. We are all called to turn our houses into homes and transform our often cold and heartless secular society into a warm respectful community where our love for God is shown concretely in our deeds of mutual trusts and respect.
Like Christ, we are all to value the dignity of all peoples because we are all children of God; we are all precious in God’s eyes even though many of our maids and migrant workers may not have much education or may come from a background of poverty and desperation. How can we live this Christ-like respect for our maids and migrant workers? There are five basic ways. These can be called the “five pillars supporting the dignity of migrant workers”. I will only have time to briefly highlight each of them. They are all essential.
First, we need Good communication. This is because our maids and migrant workers come from different countries and cultural backgrounds. If we do not communicate well, there will be a lot of miscommunication, misinterpretation of our intentions and thus anxieties in our homes. Thus, in good communication, both the employer and employee need to learn to listen to each other respectfully.
Second, there should be proper Meals and Accommodation. This is not about Christian charity. It is a basic human right of all peoples. How many of our maids sleep on foldable mattresses in our living rooms or our store rooms or bomb shelters?
Third, what about Days off and Privacy? How would we ourselves feel if we are in their shoes, working 10 to 12 hours daily and without any days of rest, and no place we can call our own?
Our fourth “pillar of dignity” has to do with Skills Development. Do we encourage and train our maids and workers with skills and knowledge so that they can continue to improve in their work, and learn skills so that they have a brighter future in their lives?
Fifth, what about the Wages we Pay? Do we pay them a just wage - a decent wage from which they could support their family? Our maids and migrant workers are very often financially desperate. Most have to beg, borrow and sell their possessions just to pay for their exorbitant Agency fees of their own country, then go to a foreign country and work for the first 8 months or so, without any wages because they have to pay their Placement fees. And after working for almost a year and having to work for 10 to 12 hours daily, many barely earn $350.00 per month which works out to be about $1.00 per hour of work.
How many of us would want to work in such a condition or want our own spouse and children to work in such a condition? Our maids and migrant workers too are human beings and somebody’s precious spouse or son or daughter. Our maids and migrant workers too are precious children of God with dignity. Some employers pay “peanut” wages and yet, dare to complain that the work of their maids and migrant workers are not good enough. I hope and pray that none of us are guilty of such heartless behaviour because how are we to face God when He should question us on this?
My sisters and brothers in Christ, the topic of “Migrant workers” is a sensitive issue that many of us would prefer not to hear preached. Or some of us may say that the theme of today’s celebration of Migrant Sunday does not apply to me because I don’t employ any migrant workers. We are all challenged to have the right attitude and respect for the poor and needy of our society. If we want to call ourselves followers of Christ, then we have to face the truth of what is happening in our very homes and country and the world at large. Our faith is more than praying and coming to Church on Sundays, our faith cannot end with “lip service”. Our faith has to be grounded on concrete actions of compassion and justice.
That is why, St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in our Second Reading today asserts strongly: “If our life in Christ means anythingat all then, we should all be self-effacing . . . we should consider others to be better than ourselves . . . we should never think of our own interests first, but other people’s interests instead. This tough saying of St Paul echoes what Jesus repeatedly preaches, “If we want to be the great in the Kingdom of God, then we must be the humblest servant of all.”
As I conclude let me add that, as Christians, we must all return to our homes today, with a deeper commitment to be more Christ-like. We must all return home wanting to live Christ’s command that we each have a “preferential love for the poor and needy of our homes and society and country.” This is today’s special grace for us as we celebrate Migrant Sunday. Let us not superficialise our faith in God, but show our true love for God through our concrete deeds of compassion and justice to our maids and migrant workers . . . for none of us, if we have a choice would want to be in their desperate situation and being at the mercy of others.
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
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