Jesus was a Low-wage Worker
You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. --Deuteronomy 24:14
Jesus was a low-wage worker, just like too many workers in the U.S. today. Nurses aides, hotel house-keepers, farm workers, day laborers, early childcare specialists, fast food workers, retail sales clerks, and custodians are examples of workers who provide needed services but who usually receive wages so low that they cannot keep a family out of poverty. Jobs should lift workers out of poverty, not keep them there. We sometimes justify poverty wages by assuming certain workers are not worth more, are not worthy of living wages. But all workers are people of God, made in God’s image. Jesus was a low-wage worker. Low-wage workers today, just like Jesus, deserve a living wage.
Too many low-wage jobs -- Over one-quarter of all jobs in the U.S. (26%) pay poverty-level wages, so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a family of four out of poverty. These jobs are more likely to be held by people of color. Just like Jesus. The table shows the workes who hold these jobs, based on race and ethnicity. Hispanics are most likely to be paid poverty wages followed by African Americans.
Workers in Low-Wage Jobs, 2009
No benefits and difficult work conditions -- Low-wage jobs are less likely to provide health insurance, a pension, or even paid sick leave. They are more likely to require evening, night, weekend, or rotating shifts. They are more likely to be part time.
Less upward mobility -- These jobs are seldom ladders to better opportunities. Today moving up the ladder – for example, moving from low-income or working class up to middle income – is harder (and achieved less often) than in the past.
Education is not the answer -- While more education can improve the job prospects for an individual, education of workers will not improve these jobs. Even if all workers were college graduates, we would still need people to sweep floors, and care for our children and elders. These jobs would still be poverty jobs. The problem is not the worker but the job.
Unsafe work conditions -- Low-wage jobs are more likely to be dangerous or unsafe. Each year more than one out of every four meat-packing workers in the U.S. suffers an injury or work-related illness that requires medical attention beyond first aid. One out of every seven poultry processing workers is injured or becomes ill due to their job each year.
What to Do about Poverty-Wage Jobs
Workers need jobs. If all they can find is a poverty job, they have to take it. But workers acting together with their allies can improve their workplaces and gain dignity on the job. Poverty jobs can be changed into life-enhancing, living-wage jobs if we actively work to make this happen.
Raise the minimum wage -- We need to further increase the minimum wage. In 2007, Congress voted to raise it to $7.25 over a two year period, helping about 15½ million workers. But this new wage is not high enough. Further increases are needed. Watch for upcoming legislation in Congress and the states. Get involved with the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign of the National Council of Churches and Center for Community Change. Justice and Witness Ministries is a partner in this campaign. Support efforts to raise the minimum wage and pass living wage laws.
Strengthen workers' right to organize or form a union -- We need to strengthen the right of all workers to form and join unions. Unions are one of the best ways for workers to improve their wages and working conditions. We are indebted to union struggles of the past for many of the workplace benefits and social supports that we take for granted. God gave us the Sabbath but organized workers -- unions members -- brought us the weekend, the 8-hour day, paid vacations and holidays, health insurance, and pensions.
The right to organize a union is a basic human right, included in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But this right has been eroded in the U.S. In 31% of all efforts to form unions, workers are illegally fired solely for their union organizing efforts. All together, 10% of workers who try to form a union are illegally fired. In addition, employers too often engage in coercive tactics that interfere with workers’ rights to choose union representation. Legislation is needed to strengthen the right to organize and increase penalties for firms that violate this right. The Employee Free Choice Act, currently being considered by Congress, should be passed.
Change Unfair International Trade Agreements -- Laws that govern international trade and investment typically put workers – in the U.S. and around the world – at a disadvantage. Free trade and investment agreements usually mean freedom for corporations to move where wages are lowest, workers are least able to speak out, and safeguards for both labor and the environment are weakest. This hurts workers in the U.S. and those in other countries. There is a growing international movement to oppose these treaties in favor of others that put workers and corporations on a more level playing field. Work to defeat “free-trade” agreements unless they include strong safeguards for workers and the environment. Support and buy sweat-shop free apparel and other goods, and fairly-traded coffee, cocoa, and other products. Serve fair trade coffee at your church. Learn about the UCC’s Coffee Project.
Low-wage workers are high-value people of God. All jobs must provide fair and adequate wages, benefits, and working conditions. Workers must be able to support themselves and their families, and live with dignity the life of wholeness that God intends for all. God’s reign does not stop at the door to the workplace but extends to all aspects of life including our work lives.
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