St Joseph the Worker - Image: Gerrit van Honthorst - Childhood of Christ
This year, in his message for the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM (Conv), Bishop of the diocese of Parramatta, says: “Have you ever imagined St Joseph as a migrant worker? Would he have taken with him as many tools of trade as he could carry when he fled with Mary and the child Jesus into Egypt? What would it have been like for him trying to find work in a foreign land to support his family? Would anyone help them, or would these ‘outsiders’ be exploited or left to fend for themselves?” Today there are millions of migrant workers across the world, who like St Joseph, either with their families, or more often still, alone, leave their homelands to find work in order to support their families. And many of their stories are stories of exploitation. “Sadly,” says Bishop Long, “the exploitation of migrant workers is not something that only happens in other countries.” (For Bishop Vincent Long’s statement see below)
We are aware that Pope Francis has a special devotion to St Joseph. “I have great love for Saint Joseph”, says Pope Francis, “because he is a man of silence and strength. On my table I have a statue of Saint Joseph sleeping. Even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the Church! So when I have a problem, a difficulty, I write a little note and I put it underneath Saint Joseph, so that he can dream about it! In other words I tell him: pray for this problem! …” (Sermon of Pope Francis, January 16, 2015 - Philippines)
While these workers dream, they also place their dreams in the hands of St Joseph, so that he can pray for them and for their desires and hopes for a better future for themselves and their loved ones.
We can easily picture St Joseph sleeping after hours each day at his job as a carpenter. We can also picture the many workers throughout the world who may also have, like Pope Francis, a special love of St Joseph, their patron. We can picture the millions of exploited workers throughout the world who have dreams for a just salary, better working conditions, a change of heart in their employees and government leaders so that they may act to bring about just structures for workers around the world, and for the accompaniment and advocacy of their church and respective leaders in their faith tradition. While these workers dream, they also place their dreams in the hands of St Joseph, so that he can pray for them and for their desires and hopes for a better future for themselves and their loved ones.
Columban missionaries accompany migrant workers throughout the world, advocating for their rights, as well as changes in government policies, so that the dignity and well-being of these workers are protected. Fr Peter O’Neill, the Columban leader in Australia, lived in Taiwan for 26 years where he worked tirelessly advocating for the rights and protection of migrant workers from Asia who travel to Taiwan for work to support their families at home. Fr Peter continues this advocacy for migrant workers in Australia as a member of Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH).
Fr Peter has been reappointed for a further two years as ACRATH’s representative on the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) Advisory Group established by the Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE). Most seasonal workers are paid piece rate (paid for the amount picked, packed, pruned or made). Fr Peter said: “The challenge is for the government to have regular inspections to ensure the workers are paid a piece rate that enables them to earn no less than the minimum wage and to ensure their working conditions are safe and hygienic”. Fr Peter continues his work on the ground, meeting seasonal workers and finding out what issues concern them.
Columban Fr Kevin O'Neill is currently on the Peace, Ecology and Justice (PEJ) Team at St Columban's, Essendon.