During November each year, the Living Wage Foundation holds its annual ‘Living Wage Week’. This year, Ed Miliband lent his support to the campaign when he pledged that a Labour government would use tax breaks to encourage more employers to offer the Living Wage. He gave a speech outlining his support of the Living Wage at Islington Town Hall – Islington being one of the first local authorities to become accredited Living Wage employers.
Why is the Living Wage such an important issue? Why is it crucial that we overcome ‘poverty pay’? Why should Christians care? Why should we be involved? For me, the answers to these questions all hinge on the notion that we should ensure everybody has provision according to their need, rather than what they are deemed to have deserved.
Central to the Christian faith is the bold proclamation of God’s grace: that in Christ we do not get what we have earned, deserved or merited. We are not compensated or rewarded according to what we have done. Were it otherwise, we would be in a grave situation. ‘The wages of sin is death’ says St Paul in Romans 6.
Rather, we are given the free gift of life through the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross: a free gift to us, though costly indeed to God. Especially within the Reformed tradition, but consistently throughout orthodox Christianity, this proclamation has been an essential doctrine of the faith - an absolute upon which Christian life and witness is modelled. ‘The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ concludes St Paul.
In the early church, the practical application of this principle was radically lived out in the communitarian ethic of the first Christians: ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.’ (Acts 2:44-45) It was according to their need that the first disciples where given a share of the common purse.
It is according to our need for a saviour that God in Christ meets and redeems us. His action is based on our need for one who will rescue us from our enslavement to obsession-with-self, pride and greed – those features of human existence that consume every one of us, prompting enmity between one another and rebellion against our creator.
We do not earn ourselves a saviour. We do not merit our rescue. We are justified by grace alone.
This notion of reward according to need rather than merit seems entirely consistent with the generous nature of God. Matthew 20 records a story that Jesus told about a landowner who hired workers for his vineyard. It’s a familiar story, but one which perhaps challenges some of our contemporary notions about labour and its reward.
In the story, five groups of labourers are hired to work in the vineyard: the first are hired early in the morning; the second in mid-morning; the third and fourth at noon and mid-afternoon respectively; and the final group of labourers are hired in the late-afternoon. Only the first group hired are contracted for a set wage – the others are simply promised that they will be paid ‘whatever is right’.
At the end of the day comes the surprising rub: each group of labourers is paid the same amount – regardless of how long they had worked. The labourers who worked since earlier in the day grumbled – because they thought they should be paid more. But the landowner paid those who were hired first exactly what was agreed – they grumbled not because they didn’t get what they had expected, but because others had been given what they did not expect!
Boris Johnson has recently spoken of the importance of wealth disparity – claiming that it’s good for the poor to envy the rich so they may be motivated to work or labour harder. It’s a nasty claim, showing just how easy it is for the rich and powerful to create self-legitimating narratives that justify their position. The myth of the ‘self-made man’ is just that – a myth and a fiction. We do not live in an economic meritocracy.
However, his comments certainly reveal just how confused we are in this society about the value of labour. In a capitalist market economy, it’s not the number of hours that determines our pay – or else office cleaners, care workers and nurses may be paid just as much as market traders or management consultants. (Too many people in our society work hours that are too long to allow time for rest, recreation and for the flourishing of family life. The EU working time directive is actually too permissive.)
How do we value labour? Is it by the perceived significance of the industry to our national economy? Footballers? TV celebrities? Chief Executives?
The parable of the workers in the vineyard shows us another way: they way of generosity; the way of giving to people according to their need; the way of providing meaningful and valued opportunities in the labour market even for those who were passed over at first.
It’s noteworthy that the labourers hired last had not been unemployed because they were ‘shirkers’ – they had been in the market seeking employment all day long. There is a chronic shortage of employment in the labour market today: unemployment and under-employment is a real problem. Of course, the under-employed will not show up on any official unemployment counts. (Zero-hours contracts are a travesty which must be exposed for the abuse of power that they are.)
The landowner in the parable gives to each of the workers as he sees fit – according to his generosity and their need. Jesus says as a precursor to the parable that it will be a demonstration of what the kingdom of heaven is like. The parable is primarily concerned to turn on its head the received wisdom of Jesus’ Jewish contemporary audience. The point of the parable is to warn his listeners that there will be those who are ‘undeserving’, or that have ‘worked less hard’ who will be rewarded by God as equals with the diligent, attentive and observant religious Jews. Even ‘Johnny-come-lately’ will be given an equal share. There is no glass ceiling in the kingdom of heaven!
But for us, it may challenge us to think about how we value labour in our society? Could we adopt a similarly gratuitous generosity in our wage structures? Perhaps not, we might answer, but let’s begin by at least speaking up for those who are so often abandoned in the market-place, and who do not have what they need.
The Living Wage campaign is intensely practical: it claims greater staff retention, less sickness, better performance and satisfaction for employees where the Living Wage has been implemented. The Living Wage also recognises that the legal minimum wage is simply not set at a level sufficient for a quality of life reckoned to be reasonable by the majority of people in this country.
We have a problem of ‘poverty pay’ in this country – and it requires state interventions in the form of various benefits and tax credits to provide people with an income sufficient for normal participation in our society. The scandal of ‘poverty pay’ is that it’s often the very corporations who are doling out multi-million pound salary awards and remuneration packages to their executives who are making their money on the exploitation of low-paid employees.
There are other proposals which go even further than the Living Wage. Will Hutton’s Work Foundation have commended the idea of fixed pay differentials – so that the highest remuneration package in an organisation may not exceed 20 times the remuneration of the lowest paid employee in the same organisation. In this scenario, executives seeking generous salaries, bonuses and share options would have to ensure they were raising basic pay for their lowest-paid staff to be eligible for further personal reward. Representation of low-paid staff on executive remuneration panels would also be an important step in the right direction.
In Constantinople, at various period in the 1st millennium, citizens were literally given their ‘daily bread’. There was a system in place to acknowledge the duty of a healthy society (and one in that case with a clear Christian constitution) to provide the basics of life for all of its members.
The Living Wage is an important step in promoting that same principle today: that each should have provision according to need. It is recognised now by most that the minimum wage is simply insufficient for sustaining healthy, flourishing lives in our society. Wealth inequality is a justice issue, and therefore a Christian issue. God gives to us according to our need. So we should do for others.