Friday, September 14, 2012

How Bosses Treat Their Workers Matters

1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter... 9 Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!  - James 5:1-5, 9


With all of the understandably intense news coverage of Ambassador Stevens' assassination this week in Libya, you will be forgiven if you hadn't heard.  Pakistan suffered the worst industrial accident in its country's history on Tuesday.

In Karachi, 289 textile workers died after a boiler exploded in their factory and ignited a stubborn, smoky fire.  Reports from survivors indicate that managers, in hopes of salvaging the company's stockpile of stonewashed denim jeans, refused to unlock security exits and allow employees to evacuate the facility.  It took two days to put out the fire.  Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation.

Upwards of 600 workers were in the factory when the fire started, so the death toll accounts for almost half of them.  Nevertheless, public fury against the three owners of the factory, who seem to have disappeared, has already proven to be short-lived.  In a country like Pakistan, where rules mean nothing and bribery fuels whatever economic development takes place, this week's fire represents just another reminder of how insignificant low-skilled workers can be in the eyes of their employers.

Scrooge Employers Know No Geopolitical Boundaries

Indeed, although right-wing capitalists don't like talking about it, the mindset of employers in a country like Pakistan isn't far removed from the mindset of some employers in First World countries.  Countries like Australia, in fact, where this week, the world's richest woman suggested that workers in industrialized countries should be paid much less so their employers can remain competitive in the global marketplace.

Mining heiress Gina Rhinehart, who parlayed a $75 million inheritance into an $18 billion empire of metals and mass media, is the latest imperious executive to consider their payroll more penalty than investment.  Rhinehart made a videotaped presentation to Australia's Sydney Mining Club in which she lambasted punitive governmental and environmental restrictions on Aussie industry, and then mentioned $2-per-day wages in Africa in conjunction with comparatively high wage costs in Australia.

Some pundits have taken Rhinehart's statements to imply that she thinks Australian workers should be able to make do on far less than what they're earning now.  And although she probably would love to pay her fellow countrymen $2 per day, she's likely savvy enough to realize that low of a figure isn't realistic.  But that hasn't stopped critics from figuring she'd like to get down as close to that pay scale as possible.

Rhinehart has made quite a reputation for herself as an irascible, egotistical, and heavy-handed autocrat.  For 14 years, she battled her stepmother in Australia's courts for control of her late father's estate, and three of her own children have been forced to sue her over control of a trust fund her father set up for them before his death.

Yes, her father was a mining tycoon who created the prosperous company his only child inherited, so Rhinehart's incessant defense of her wealth, and rich people in general, tends to ring hollow among her many skeptics.  She seems to enjoy fomenting the discord, publicly claiming last month that "there is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire," and waxed rhetorical about class warfare she blames on the poor.

"If you're jealous of those with more money, don't just sit there and complain," chided Rhinehart.  "Do something to make more money yourself - spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working."

Of course, that last bit of advice isn't bad at all, since even in the Bible, lazy people aren't entitled to much more than the recriminations they receive from those who aren't.  But like so many capitalists, Rhinehart fails to understand basic economics when she assumes the free market has unlimited room at the top.  By its very nature, the free market cannot possibly reward a disproportionate number of people with extraordinary wealth because only so many people can own what a society's economy needs to function properly.  Otherwise, you'd end up with lots of people being equally wealthy in an unsustainable fiction we normally call communism.

Her complaints about governmental red tape and "green tape" - which is a clever description of many onerous ecology-centered rules - likely have merit, if that red tape and green tape is anything like what American industry is facing these days.  But if you watch her video, doesn't her thinly-veiled contempt for workers who expect to be paid in proportion to the value of their labor look suspiciously similar to the contempt displayed by the owners of Karachi's textile factory that caught fire this week?

A Biblical Balance to Pay Scales

To the extent that wages in Majority World countries are depressing wages in First World countries as globalization spreads, it's likely that workers in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere are in for a rude awakening as the actual value of their labor does slide relative to what desperate people in impoverished countries are willing to work for.  Only as wages rise in the Majority World will wages in the First World stop falling.  Rhinehart is correct in pointing out that equity cannot exist when stark disparities persist between workers in different countries.  For better or worse, capitalism always seeks the lowest common denominator.

However, when companies realize profits because workers are marginalized and production is shifted to other parts of the world where workers can be treated with less dignity, should that enhancement in the value of that company be acceptable to followers of Christ?  Paying people what they're worth is a Biblical concept based on what workers are worth to an enterprise.  But if your worth rises based on how many people you deprive of a living wage, even if you're giving somebody else what passes for a living wage in another country, are you still honoring God?

Remember, it's the love of money that's the root of evil, not money itself.

The Bible was probably history's first global document.  You and I have brothers and sisters in Christ all over this planet.  May God guide His people around the world as we seek to honor Him in the way we treat our fellow workers.

No matter where we live, or what each of us earns.
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