“Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” (James 5:4)
I recently watched the 2004 BBC mini-series “North & South”. This was set in a mill town in the north of England around 1850; it follows the clash of values between a clergyman’s daughter from the rural south of England and the owner of a cotton mill. The images in this film are stark:
- A woman begging the factory overseer to allow her eight year old child to stay working at the loom despite being sick because, without the child’s wages, the family would starve.
- A man beaten by the mill owner for having a pipe and matches in the factory…..and the owner later explaining that, having walked through the corpses of 300 people burned alive in a fire at another mill, he needed to take extreme measures to protect his workers from a similar fate.
- A teenage girl musing that she need not hope for marriage or motherhood because she expected to die young of respiratory disease.
- Repeated footage of the mill in operation, with a thick fog of cotton fibers floating through the air as the shuttles fly back and forth.
I was a union member just briefly, as a teen in Coeur d’Alene; being a long distance telephone operator meant I paid dues to the IBEW. But many of the benefits that made my work life bearable over the years were concessions fought for by unions, things that eventually became available to most non-union workers too. On this Labor Day, we should all be grateful to the labor movement for things like child labor laws, weekends, the 40-hour work week, the 8-hour work day, overtime pay, sick pay, health care benefits, equal pay for women, paid vacation days, and so many workplace safety improvements.
Scripture is filled with admonitions to treat workers fairly. In the Old Testament are Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:14-15 and Malachi 3:5; in the New Testament are Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 4:1 and James 5:4. To those who are employers and managers, the implications are clear. But most of us are employees and/or consumers. How do WE live into our faith’s call to support fair treatment of workers? Below are a few suggestions; please add your own ideas in the comments section.
- Become familiar with terms like “fair trade”, “B-Corp”, “Made in USA” and GOTS Organic, with what they mean and what you can learn from them.
- Do your research. Do an internet search for companies that “treat employees best” or “treat like people” or “treat worst” or “treat poorly” or “use child labor” or “use slave labor”. Use this information as you choose which companies to patronize.
- Include other factors, beyond price, as you decide which items to buy. It may be more just to buy fewer, more expensive items than lots of cheap items produced in sweatshops.
Lord we are grateful for the benefits we enjoy today, won by the efforts of those who came before us. Help us to be wise consumers so that we do not, inadvertently, perpetuate unfair or unsafe working conditions for others. Amen.