Good Samaritan Sister Pauline Coll is raising awareness about religious items being produced by “child slaves” or workers who are exploited. PAUL DOBBYN reports
CATHOLICS need to look carefully at the origins of religious items they buy to ensure they are not the products of child slave labour, a Brisbane religious sister has warned.
The seriousness of the issue has led the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA) to pledge its support for a Christian Goods Standard to end worker exploitation in the production of Christian merchandise which also includes T-shirts and Bible covers.
The Just Holy Hardware campaign has also been launched and includes a website to list fairly traded Christian items.
Several retailers and suppliers of religious goods spoken to in Brisbane – St Paul’s Book Centre, Christian Supplies and Di Marco International – have also indicated they support these initiatives.
Good Samaritan Sister Pauline Coll said the catalyst for these actions had been the discovery that crucifixes sold at St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, in 2007 had come from a factory employing teenagers working in “dreadful sweat shop” conditions in China.
Sr Coll said the huge USA-based Association for Christian Retail “was found to lack basic codes of conduct and a factory-monitoring program”.
“There was little to reassure American Christians that the religious products they buy to celebrate their faith were not made under inhumane conditions,” she said.
“It seems that this issue needs more attention in Australia – so Christian retailers and wholesalers here are being invited to ensure that similar abuses are not happening in the production of the religious goods they sell.”
Sr Coll, a representative on the national executive of Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH), has spoken on the issue at a number of meetings this year including the Mitchelton Probus Club last week.
She also recently addressed the associates of the Presentation Sisters, the Redlands Christian Reformed Church and social justice groups in Tamborine and Coorparoo.
“Unwittingly Christians may be enjoying the results of exploitation of trafficked or enslaved people – we just don’t know,” she said.
“It is our privilege to search out and check whether the articles/goods/services we enjoy have any element of this sort of labour about them.
“It would be a particularly terrible irony if the religious items we used in our devotions were to have been manufactured in this way.
“We need to be sure that none of this material is being sold by Church organisations.”
In the 2007 case of New York’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, the crucifixes were traced back to a factory in China where girls as young as 15 were forced to work up to 19-hour days seven days a week to manufacture the religious items for a couple of dollars a day.
The crucifix workers were reported to have no paid sick days, maternity leave, holidays or health insurance which are all mandated under China’s laws.
Proprietor of Christian Supplies, Greg Shakhovskoy, said he welcomed the new standard and initiative of the website and “looked forward to working actively with those concerned about or championing action on this front”.
Mr Shakhovskoy said Christian Supplies and its wholesale distributors had been aware of the issue for some time.
“We have tried to monitor the situation actively,” he said.
“Our main supplier of religious goods personally visits the factories in Asia from where they source religious items to ensure as best they can that employers are not abusing their workers through poor pay or conditions.”
St Paul’s Book Centre director Society of St Paul Father Bruno Colombari said he was certain that all crucifixes stocked at the shop came from Italy.
He said he had also visited the factories where the religious items were made.
“The Italian-made items are of high quality,” he said.
“I would immediately know if they were from other countries. Their quality would not be as good.”
However, Fr Colombari said that when he visited international fairs to source items it was not always possible to be sure of the country of origin of certain products.
Di Marco International manager Margaret McDonald said the company fully supported the initiatives announced in relation to ensuring the ethical manufacture of religious items.
“Specifically in response to the issue of crucifix sold at St Patrick’s, New York, Di Marco sources all its crucifixes from Italy,” Ms McDonald said.
Social justice officer for the Justice and International Mission for the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania Uniting Church in Australia Antony McMullen helped draft the Christian Goods Standard resolution adopted by the NCCA in June this year.
“The rationale is that the Christian gospel calls us to work for justice and equity in society, particularly as we care for those who live in poverty and are most vulnerable in the world,” he said.
Mr McMullen said the NCCA campaign would start with a request to Australia’s Christian retailers to stock items made under Fairtrade, No Sweat Shop label and World Fair Trade Organisation schemes.
“These three schemes ensure basic human rights standards are adhered to in the production of Christian related goods like T-shirts, Bible covers and crosses,” he said.
“Christian consumers can order online and retailers can stock all of the items listed.
“In addition, Church-related organisations, such as schools, can explore buying things like Fairtrade footballs that are effective as an anti-child labour initiative in Pakistan.”
The catalogue of fair traded Christian and related items can be found on the website www.justholyhardware.org.au
The ACRATH site can be accessed at www.acrath.org.au