For a number of years I was involved in an employment organisation based in Gugulethu, one of Cape Town’s oldest townships, a legacy of the unjust and evil system of apartheid in South Africa. The project linked unemployed people to work opportunities and ran an employment discipleship course that included how to negotiate for a fair wage, as well as training on things like work ethic and a biblical framework for working as part of our daily lives.
One of the painful aspects of that time that changed my life was listening to men and women sharing stories of exploitation and racism, sometimes covert and other times overt, stories that opened my eyes to the ongoing suffering and immoral treatment of domestic staff. Some of the stories were from homes that were clearly Christian in their beliefs. We reflected on homes that had ‘missions jars’ for children to give some of their pocket money to missionaries, while at the same time they had domestic staff who were being paid barely enough for transport, food and the most basic of shelter, and were clearly struggling to make ends meet.
I started to ask questions like, “If we truly believe all people are equal, surely how we treat our staff should reflect that?” and “How can Jesus followers who are called and motivated by the call to love our neighbours, be a part of a system that is clearly exploiting others?” and “If the Bible is so clear on its command not to exploit others, why is exploitation so rife amongst Christians today?” and “What is lacking in our theology that enables us to allow people to struggle and suffer under the burden of poverty and inequality within our immediate sphere of influence?” The questions remain in my mind 15 years later, as exploitation and low wages are still rife amongst wealthy Christian employers.
The impact of low wages on families and communities is enormous and life-threatening in many parts of the world. Many do not see the connection between low wages and violence. For example, the danger to children who are forced to fend for themselves for long hours as their parents work for so little they cannot afford child care. Or the effects of lack of nutrition on young lives. The impact has a generational impact, and employers are complicit if they are not paying fair wages. I am reminded of James 4 which says, “The wages you failed to pay the men who mowed your fields, is crying out against you.”
It is imperative that Christians who employ others act immediately on the call of God to not exploit others, to serve those who have been treated as ‘lower than’ in ways that express the truth that all are equal before God. This often requires going above and beyond what is comfortable as the scales have been tipped immorally for so long. Around the world, people are exploited because poverty can lead to desperation. Employers sometimes speak of the ‘going rate’ as if that is the standard, as if people are commodities linked to supply and demand. This is not God’s heart for any human being. Most would agree that modern-day slavery is an abomination, but at the same time wealthy people paying very low wages to already vulnerable people can be seen as ‘good business’. We are called to be people who lead the way in living just lives, as employers and employees, as people following Jesus – showing that we truly do love our neighbours well, no matter what the world tells us to keep us apart and numb to our fellow brothers and sisters suffering.
Let us pray for a movement of just Christians who go beyond what is the ‘norm’ and are generous with whatever we have, showing our compassion and care for others by the sacrifices we are willing to make for a more just society. Pray for those exploited around the world, that God will convict those who employ and that all people will be paid a fair wage. Let us pray for and show another way.