Living wage week and biblical justice

by Charlee New and Jonathan Tame, Monday 11th November 2019

As a society, we’re committed to two principles regarding wages, but they are in tension.  One is to allow the market to set prices as much as possible, and the other is to protect employees, particularly those at risk of falling into poverty. This tension is especially visible in the increasingly popular ‘gig economy’, which offers greater opportunity and flexibility to many workers—a kind of ‘be your own boss’ approach— but contributes to the poverty of others (see, for example, Ken Loach’s new film, Sorry We Missed You, reviewed brilliantly by Hannah Rich).

When it comes to the issue of justice for workers, the starting place concerns the amount of pay. For over a decade, The Living Wage Foundation has been campaigning for a Real Living Wage—a minimum wage that takes account of current living costs. This week is Living Wage Week, when the 2019/20 rates are announced; this year they are £10.75 in London and £9.30 in the rest of the country. In the UK, nearly one-fifth (19%) of UK jobs pay below the real Living Wage, but that figure is down from 22% in 2018. Currently 5.19 million people earn less than what they need to keep up with the cost of living, but that is half a million fewer people than a year ago. Although the government introduced the National Living Wage in 2015, this rate isn’t calculated independently according to living costs and doesn’t offer a separate rate for London (where living costs are significantly higher than the rest of the country).

Here at the Jubilee Centre, we’re a Living Wage employer. And, as ever, we’re asking, how do we think biblically about this? Most Christians have a general sense that there should be justice for workers (including fair pay) but what principles and values does the Bible yield to a careful reader concerned about this issue? Below are a few thoughts that draw from our latest research Just Pay: a biblical perspective on the ethics of remuneration.

Justice and Just Pay in the Bible

Justice is an undeniable theme in the Bible. The word ‘justice’ often appears alongside the word ‘righteousness’ (mishpat and tsedaqah in Hebrew; dikaiosune and krisis in Greek), and generally justice is the action and righteousness is the result. Justice is something we do.

Although justice is relevant for all members of society, God’s special attention repeatedly turns to the poor and disenfranchised. And justice in remuneration ensures that workers are protected from falling into destitution.

If we look back to the Torah, the Jubilee laws (given to Israel to shape their society) were supposed to ensure that everyone who was capable of work had access to some type of employment—with special provision set aside for those who couldn’t work (Lev. 25:8–55). However, in a fallen world, these ideals were frequently overlooked, and workers end up at the mercy of exploitative masters: ‘Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labour.’ (Jer. 22:13) And in the New Testament, ‘Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you… Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.’ (James 5:1,4)

To act justly is to pay fair wages—and also to pay workers in a fair manner. However, the Bible also offers an important challenge to contemporary ways of thinking about wages. In ancient near-eastern society, the right amount of pay provided for the worker and their family dependents. If we consider the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16), the ‘fair’ pay promised was the Roman denarius, which is generally acknowledged as the amount required to feed a family for one day. Yet over the last two decades, due mainly to the rise in housing costs, it is becoming increasingly difficult to raise a family on one salary alone.  Rather than intervening in the housing market, the government has accepted this imbalance and begun to make welfare payments for in-work families.

The biblical texts are keenly aware that masters can find ways to ‘skirt around’ true justice in remunerating workers. It was possible to compensate workers in a way that kept them alive but prevented families from flourishing (as servitude did to the Israelites in Egypt). However, the notions of economic justice and righteousness should allow communities to thrive.

Some implications for today

These three principles of protecting those at the bottom-rung of the economic ladder, being aware of human propensity towards injustice, and setting wages to enable whole families to thrive, have important implications for today.

The labour market is far from perfect and justifying the payment of inadequate wages by appealing to the market is no excuse for exploiting low income workers. There is a continued need for mediators between shareholders/employers and employees, and legislating a National Minimum wage is one expression of that.  Trades unions have traditionally played that role, but they have been largely absent in the gig economy – with the exception of the IWGB.  

We need to develop new approaches to ensuring just and fair remuneration. Campaigns by the Living Wage Foundation, which praise employers who pay Living Wages, are a good example of such a new approach, seeking to ensure workers receive more pay than just the amount needed to ‘scrape by’.

Another radical policy – which is beyond the scope of the Living Wage Week – would be to introduce an element in remuneration calculations that reflects the individual worker’s needs, especially their family situation and how many people are financially dependent upon them. However, this would run up against the principle of individual equality which is so prevalent today.

Questions like these drive to the heart of why companies remunerate their employees the way they do. Companies have responsibilities to all stakeholders, including the lowest-paid employees, pensioners, contractors and suppliers who work for or in the company (remembering that the Bible insists on justice for those who were not permanent servants in the household; see Leviticus 19:13 for one example). While remuneration committees focus almost exclusively on assessing the salary packages of upper management, pay affects every worker. We’ve all seen the excessive pay ratios between CEO and average workers (140:1 in the UK in 2018), but there is also real ethical intensity in comparing CEO wage to real living wage. A statement like, ‘The CEO’s wage could support 215 people on Living Wage’ offers a window into the issue of justice—that pay isn’t arbitrary, but can make all the difference between servitude and flourishing for families.

During Living Wage Week (11-17 November) we have a special offer on our booklet Just Pay: a biblical perspective on the ethics of remuneration.

Share this post on your network
Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

Category: Blogs

November, 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.