Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Buddhism and Worker Rights

In honor of Labor Day, which was this past Monday, I’ve decided to post a collection of Buddhist teachings on worker rights I put together last year.

Quotes from the Buddha

Our first quote from the Buddha (c. 400 – 486 BCE) is found in the Kutadanta sutta (Digha nikaya 5), a major text for thinking about Buddhism and social justice:

Let your majesty give food and seed to anyone in your realm who devotes themselves to keeping cattle and to farming. Let your majesty give capital to anyone in your realm who devotes themselves to trade. Let your majesty give wages and food to anyone in your realm who devotes themselves to government service. Then those men—each following their own business—will no longer harass the realm, the king’s revenue will go up, the country will be quiet and at peace, and the populace will dwell with open doors, happy and pleased with one another, dancing their children in their arms.

The second comes from one of my favorites—the Sigalovada sutta (Digha nikaya 31), in which the Buddha councils a rich young merchant on how to live a good lay life:

In five ways should an employer respect workers and servants . . . : (1) by allocating work according to their aptitude; (2) by providing them with wages and food; (3) by looking after them when they are sick; (4) by sharing special treats with them; and (5) by giving them reasonable time off work.

So respected, workers and servants reciprocate with compassion in five ways: (1) by being willing to start early and (2) finish late when necessary; (3) by taking only what their employer gives them; (4) by doing their work well; and (5) by promoting their employer’s good reputation.

Next is a quote from the Aputtaka sutta (Sutta nipata 3.19). Its reference to slaves is obviously horrifying. It could be that the Buddha uncritically accepted slavery; however, this could also be an issue with the translation. I haven’t done much research on Buddhism and slavery to see what the Buddha says about it in other places, but it’s well worth looking into:

When a person of integrity acquires lavish wealth, he provides for his own pleasure and satisfaction; for the pleasure and satisfaction of his parents; for the pleasure and satisfaction of his wife and children; for the pleasure and satisfaction of his slaves, servants, and assistants; and for the pleasure and satisfaction of his friends. He gives support to priests and contemplatives that results in happiness and leads to heaven. When his wealth is put to proper use, the government doesn’t make off with it, thieves don’t make off with it, fire doesn’t burn it, water doesn’t sweep it away, and hateful heirs don’t make off with it. So his wealth goes to good use and is not wasted.

Finally, here’s a really short but incredibly moving quote from the Parabhava sutta (Sutta nipata 1.6):

To have much wealth and ample gold and food, but to enjoy one’s luxuries alone—this is a cause of one’s downfall.

Quotes from Others

First is a quote from the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876 – 1933 CE), taken from a sermon given at the Great Prayer Festival in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa:

People who make religious images and print spiritual books should do so out of a pure motivations. As professionals they should make a reasonable living from their time and efforts, but their attitude should be to bring benefit to people and not merely to make a large profit. From our side we should take care that the artifacts we acquire are purchased from sincere people.

Lastly is another very moving quote, this one from Sanitsuda Ekachai, assistant editor at the Bangkok Post. It was written just last year:

It is not that we do not know about the plight of migrant workers. It is because we do not care. More importantly, it is because many people are making money from this inhumanity.

Who we are is largely determined by how we relate to others, and to our ideals. If we have no second thoughts about hurting the weak even on Buddhist holy days, we should use the upcoming Macha Bucha Day to seriously consider whether we can still call ourselves Buddhists.

It isn’t just in Thailand that people profit off the plight of workers. Indeed, our entire economy is largely based on this type of exploitation. We’d probably all be well-served to ask to what extent we can still claim the teachings of the Buddha—and, as the example about slavery above shows, to what extent they can still claim us.

1 Comment

  1. Kanchana Liyanapathirana

    April 12, 2014 at 9:08 am

    thank you very a days I am working on labour rights and buddhas teaching.this article help me a lot

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