Jesus for Revolutionaries: A Blog About Race, Social Justice, and Christianity

Friday, November 30, 2012

God’s EPC (Part III): Corporate Responsibility and Living Wages

Buenos dias.  Before continuing our discussion of the biblical basis for social justice, I want to thank you for speaking up on behalf of the African American family who was driven out of Orange County by racism.  Thanks for spreading the word about this terrible occurrence and getting in touch with the Yorba Linda City council to express your concern.  I received a thoughtful response from the city after writing them.  They expressed a sincere concern for what happened and said that they have launched an investigation.  No leads have turned up yet, unfortunately.  Let’s continue to pray for justice… 
         Before the Thanksgiving holiday, we had begun a multi-part discussion about the biblical basis for social justice.  Today’s post is part III of this series, and it will explore the biblical basis for corporate responsibility and labor rights. 
         The Old Testament “law of gleaning” speaks loud and clear about corporate responsibility.  Leviticus 19: 9-10 summarizes this important social justice law which is also restated in Deuteronomy 24:
9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God."

         This law from God Himself, commanded landowners, business owners in our language today, to leave some of their potential profits for immigrants and the poor.   In those days when landowners sent out farm workers to pick their fields for sale in the marketplace, some of the harvested grapes and produce would fall to the ground.   In this passage, God commanded agricultural business owners to leave this fallen produce, or “gleanings,” on the ground so that immigrants and the poor could have something to eat.  In addition, this text orders them to leave the “very edges of [their] field” alone, so that immigrants and the poor could harvest the edges for food.  
         The law of gleaning imparts a very important principle which stands in opposition to the corporate greed which we see rampant in America today:  Corporations and other businesses have a moral, indeed divine, obligation to reserve some of their profits to help immigrants and the poor.  Corporations should not squeeze as much profit as they can from the hard work of their employees (i.e., the farm workers employed in the above passage) and keep it all for themselves, their stockholders, and their highly overpaid CEO’s.  This is immoral.   Every business and corporation has a moral obligation to give back and not to hoard wealth when millions in America and around the globe are starving.  Period. 
         The Bible is also clear that corporations and employers have a moral obligation to pay just wages to their employees.   If they make themselves rich by failing to pay their employees fairly, then, as James, Jesus’ younger revolutionary brother tells us, they face fiery divine judgment:
“Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you.

2 Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags.

3 Your gold and silver have become worthless. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This treasure you have accumulated will stand as evidence against you on the day of judgment.

4 For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.

5 You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter.

6 You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you.”  James 5: 1-6

         WOW!  If you’ve never read the book of James before, you’re probably stunned after reading this passage.  Whoever makes the false claim that the Bible stands opposed to social justice must never have read the book of James before.  I’ve been criticized for sounding too “angry” in my writing about social injustice—I will now reply, yes, I am righteously angry just like Jesus’ brother!
         This passage of Holy Scripture is abundantly clear about the moral responsibility that employers have to pay fair wages to their employees.  If they fail to pay their workers, and by implication if they fail to pay their workers fairly, they face the danger of God’s righteous judgment.  God gets very upset when corporations and employers hoard wealth and fail to justly compensate their workers.  He is enraged when workers cry out to Him about such injustice.  The picture here is that employers who engage in such unjust labor practices are like bloated and overfed cows awaiting the slaughter of God’s judgment.
         This passage makes me think about the disturbing trend of inflated CEO salaries and unlivable wages for incredibly hard-working, blue-collar employees.   Many CEO’s make millions of dollars a year while their hard-working employees don’t earn enough to feed their families.  They benefit from lavish benefits packages and housing and car allowances, while their employees can’t take their children to see a doctor because they lack health care.  This is not right.  This is biblically immoral according to the book of James.
         For example, in 2011, Walmart CEO Mike Duke earned $16.27 million, but how many of Walmart’s employees could not feed their families or take them to see a doctor?  In 2011, the average, full-time Walmart employee earned an annual pay of $15,576.  This salary was about $7,000 less than the 2010 Federal Poverty Level of $22,050 for a family of 4.  And these numbers apply only to full-time employees at Walmart.  What about the many employees who are hired on a part-time basis?
         Do you like to travel and stay at hotels?  I know I do.  Starwood Hotels CEO Frits van Paasschen earned $16.66 million in 2011. How many minimum-wage Latina immigrant moms work at one of the company’s hotels like the Westin and the Sheraton, but don’t make enough money to provide for their family’s basic needs.  Be sure to tip big to the cleaning staff when you stay at a hotel.
         And do you like the shirts with the little horsey on them? Ralph Lauren earned $43 million in executive compensation in 2011.  How many sweatshop workers are suffering in the world today because of those little horsey shirts?
         The Costco corporation is a wonderful counter-example to the rampant corporate greed in America.  It is not a perfect company by any means, but Costco gives healthcare benefits to full and part-time employees and pays an average of $17 per hour!   In fact, Costco shareholders were so alarmed by the high wages paid by their company that they actually sued—unsuccessfully-to try and lower compensation rates.  They lost their lawsuit because Costco was able to prove that their fair employee practices lead to higher corporate profit.  I don’t think that it is an accident that Costco’s fair employee compensation policies were spear-headed by former Catholic CEO, Jim Sinegal.  Mr. Sinegal probably read the book of James. 
In sum, the Bible is very clear:  It is immoral for corporations, businesses, and employers to hoard wealth at the expense of  immigrants, the poor, and their employees.  They have a moral obligation to reserve some of their profit to assist immigrants and the poor, and, for fear of fiery divine judgment, they also have a moral duty to pay fair wages.  Like Jesus’ revolutionary younger brother, let’s speak out.

In solidarity,
Robert Chao Romero
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