On August 31st, 2014, the Our Lady of Guadalupe Tonantzin Community joined with congregations across North America in lifting up and honouring the sacred link between work and faith. This is an opportunity to educate ourselves about the issues that impact workers, especially those in low-wage jobs, and reflect on the true meaning of Labour Day.
Readings for Celebrating the Sacredness of Work
Deuteronomy 24: 14-15
You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy labourers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to Yahweh against you, and you would incur guilt.
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the just into eternal life.’
Patricia McSherry, a community member and representative from the Metro Vancouver Alliance (MVA) Poverty Research Team gave the following homily on the Living Wage movement. Patricia's work is an illustration of what it means to be a person of faith and a worker advocate.
For me the readings today show that the church has the moral authority to make employers pay fair wages and to demonstrate to the world that looking after those of us with the greatest needs is what God wants of all of us. Can we make this happen?
I’m going to read to you from a homily that a fellow member of the MVA Poverty RAT, Adolf Manz, delivered to his congregation at First Lutheran Church, about what we learned from our research.
He started by describing…the purpose of the Christian life: fellowship with other believers, worship of God, sharing of the Good News of Jesus in what we say and do, service and care for all people in the example of Jesus, and working for justice and peace for all, - especially those who are suffering and oppressed regardless of their: age, sex, religion, colour, language, nationality or position.
Yes, it’s a tall order, - not for those faint of heart, and those afraid of commitments and sacrifice, for the benefit of ourselves and others with whom we share this globe.
Our capitalist societies and corporations have elevated the Market and its demands, for competition and higher profits to the highest level, so that even our governments are pressured to give in to the never satisfied profit motives, to sell out our land and its natural resources, and our democratic political rights. In the process people lose their jobs and work benefits, and are paid non-living wages and salaries, which destroy families and our society.
The result of corporate goals is that the gap widens, in which the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. This is not the way of justice, the love of kindness, or the way to walk humbly with God.
It’s time for change – for fairness and justice.
In the Bible we often hear the call to care for widows and orphans, the poor and strangers, the least and the lost. This is the way of Jesus, the truth of Jesus and the life of Jesus. It is the example for all who claim to be his followers and disciples.”
The founding of the Metro Vancouver Alliance was in March of this year as a volunteer organization of people representing faith groups, unions, education and community organizations. Through a listening campaign within the membership of these diverse groups, four problems were identified for action: housing, transportation, poverty and social isolation.
“What follows are some of the shocking things the Poverty RAT learned.
British Columbia has had the highest poverty rate in Canada, for the last 13 years, and is the only province besides Saskatchewan, without a poverty reduction plan.
The problem of poverty to a great extent is low wages. In BC only 3% of people are on welfare, but 10.7% live below the poverty line. 87,000 or 43% of BC’s poor children live in families where at least one parent has a full-time job. Poverty for these is largely due to a low minimum wage of $10.25 an hour.
BC communities need a “living wage” which is the hourly rate, at which a household can meet its basic needs. In Metro Vancouver this is now at $20.10 per hour for a family of four with both parents working full time, which is why people working full time on minimum wage cannot make it.
Welfare rates in BC have been frozen since 2007, and are deeply inadequate at $610.00 per month for a single “employable” person, and $906.00 per month for a person with a disability.
The cost of poverty in BC is $8 – 9 billion per year in: higher public health costs, increased policing and crime costs, lost productivity and economic activity.
In contrast, the estimated cost of a comprehensive poverty reduction plan for BC is $3 – 4 billion per year, a potential saving of $5 billion, not counting the cost of human suffering and tragedy.
Over the past 30 years (since 1985), the richest 10% of BC residents have become 40% better off, while the poorest 50% of BC residents are only 19% better off, and those on welfare have experienced a shocking 20% cut in income.
Obviously food banks, handouts, and other forms of charity, while a stop gap, are not the answer. Justice needs to replace charity, which robs people of their self respect and dignity. There needs to be a change in government policies.”
Now following are some of my thoughts on this.
Taxation changes the incentive to do stuff. It’s a balancing act. How much money do we want to raise in taxes and then how much do we want to spend and on what? Do we truly value our public services to pay for them? Ask a BC teacher? In contemporary society those who work in public service - education institutions, hospitals, police and fire stations, government offices, etc. are the labourers of today.
But do we really control the tax system? Or is it built to suit corporate goals. The researchers and the economists and the teachers of economics have the charts and the facts to show that we can afford to fund the services that poor people need but they can’t force the decision makers to make the policies. It is up to us to forge the moral arguments that can make a difference.
Poverty is self-replicating - people who believe that they have control of their lives are less likely to be poor. We, as a society, have to buy into the idea of equality. We need to start with poor children. We, the people of faith, need to make the moral argument to decision makers not just show them a cost benefit analysis. Their bean counters already know that we can afford to erase poverty; we need to convince them that it is the right thing to do and it is the will of the majority of the people to do so. Not easy as we have learned from history and scripture!
Raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour would do more to reduce children’s poverty. But we have chosen for consideration by the MVA membership this fall that our ask for the upcoming municipal elections is an ask for living wage to be paid not only to all civic employees but also to all city contractors - usually that’s the cleaning staff. A living wage campaign has more political capital than raising minimum wage or welfare/disability rates plus it is something within the power of municipal governments whereas minimum wage and welfare/disability rates are established by provincial government policy. Next time!
Instituting a living wage won’t do as much for poor people but it starts the conversation of the morality of paying people fairly for working. It’s the balancing act again - the moral argument for looking after the most needy in society, “the least of us” doesn’t go as far in public opinion or media attention as wages for real work. Two of the costs that make Vancouver’s living wage so high are the cost of housing and the cost of day care. Families typically spend more than $50 per day per child for child care (plus $1 per minute for every minute they are late in picking up their children). For a family with two children in day care, that can be more than a family pays for housing. Compare that to Manitoba’s subsidized rate of $20 per day per child or Quebec’s subsidized rate of $10 per day per child.
This year the costs of supporting a family are rising fast in Vancouver. The living wage of $20.10 an hour for two adults working full time with two children reflects the actual costs of raising healthy children in our communities: local rent, child care fees, food and transportation costs. When we look at the numbers we find that the costs of the basics for families with kids is rising considerably faster than general inflation. In Metro Vancouver the living wage rose by 48 cents from last year.This is an increase of 2.4% well outpacing Vancouver’s inflation rate of 0.2%. The 2014 living wage numbers reveal a big gap between the low wages a large number of Vancouverites earn and the real costs of raising a family. Cild poverty is a serious concern in our cities.
One out of every ten children living in Metro Vancouver was poor in 2011 (9.9%), compared to one in 17 children living in non-urban areas (5.9%). Metro Vancouver’s child poverty rate remains the second-highest in Canada and has actually seen an increase from last year’s 13.8% to 14.1%.
The researchers and economists can show us the facts and figures about why we have so much child poverty but they don’t have the moral authority to ask the decision makers to do something about it. We do.
I’ll close with more of Adolf’s inspiring words:
“By citizen action and cooperation of different groups, such as the Vancouver Metro Alliance, change can be brought about for justice and kindness, to improve the lives of people.
As we, the people of God, take seriously the plight of the poor and impoverished, the despised and rejected, the ignored and shunned, and take action for justice for all, I believe the followers of Jesus will regain respect, and churches will regain their relevance in society.