Wages to Live By
If workers in other countries receive wages that are insufficient to elevate their life beyond poverty, and are producing goods consumed in our country, by us, is that an issue of social injustice for you and me to be concerned about? Addressing the issue of wages on the international level is vital for the sake of the future of our own country, and also because of ethical justice for the workers.
Some people will surely say that the capitalist based free market economy is successful in producing wealth and so we should let nature take its course, let the market set wages, and let the law of survival of the fittest rule in all the affairs of mankind. We should agree with this model that it truly is competition and struggle to overcome that has produced some of the greatest accomplishments of mankind-and some of the worst. If I compare unfettered capitalism to the law of the jungle, or survival of the fittest, then its guiding ethic will always be to place one’s own interest ahead of others and maintaining a place at the top of the food chain, at all costs. This ethic could possibly lead to the conclusion that the underpaid workers of the world are a simple necessity for the benefit of others.
We may also consider other voices speaking into this situation. We may choose to view humans as having a higher responsibility than to live by the base rule of survival of the fittest. There may be many factors to consider before casting off our responsibility for the poor of the world. Recognizing that the desperation that stems from poverty will eventually affect us here in the comfort of our affluence, President Truman said in 1947, “The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of people for a better life has died. We must keep that hope alive.” Therefore it is foolish and short sighted to think only of the economic prosperity of our own country. If we consider the interrelated aspects of our global economy we must consider the economic well-being of other countries as a benefit to world stability.
Because I am a worker I feel especially passionate about this issue. I have been a hard working carpenter most of my adult life, but I have always had good work clothes. The first time I saw carpenters working in bare feet, my heart was deeply ashamed at my American affluence. When I traveled to the Philippines I personally met good, hardworking people, who would work 12 or more hours a day, in an electronics factory, just to stay hopelessly poor. I simply think a worker should get paid a decent wage for a day’s work.
Some people say that this economic situation is ok because everything is cheap in their economy. That is a half-truth. True the rent for their shack may only be $25- per month but a computer still costs $800-. That is the situation. It is also true that the industrialization of poor countries by western enterprise has already greatly benefited these countries. But it is also true that these benefits have not been great enough to elevate these people beyond dependence upon us. The benefits are just enough to keep them in financial slavery.
I am not against capitalism, and I am not against rich people-that is their choice. Really, I am as materialistic as any other American. I have a nice computer, nice camera, and beautiful musical instruments. But my things are made mostly by people overseas and therefore I have a vested interest-even an obligation to be concerned about the people who make my stuff. If people are working at slave labor wages, living in want, producing products so that others may live in luxury, then this is an issue of ethical justice; before man and God. A Biblical passage challenges rich people saying, “You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who harvested your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty!” (James 5:3-4)
Major electronics leaders have already taken a huge step in forming the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, (EICC) (http://www.eicc.info/). Membership in this organization is voluntary and its members conduct self-audits of their suppliers down to the third tier. The EICC Code of Conduct monitors in the categories of: Labor, Health and Safety, Environment, Ethics, and Management Systems. Under the labor category it monitors: freely chosen employment, (including child labor avoidance), working hours, (including wages), humane treatment, and freedom of association (unions). Current standards set by the EICC Code of Conduct require workers to be paid wages equivalent to local standards including 50% more for overtime. This standard perpetuates a problem of people working excessively long hours for overtime pay. For example if a worker works at thirty cents per hour for the first eight hours and can get forty five cents per hour for the next four hours they will always want the full twelve hour shift. And if they can get sixty cents per hour for the last four hours of a sixteen hour shift, they will work until they drop. The standards currently established in the EICC Code of Conduct should be modified to mandate a living wage rather than merely conform to local minimum wage and should reduce the rate of overtime pay so that workers will have less motivation for working excessively long hours.
The solution is not socialism. The solution is not in an extreme government that will enforce a worldwide minimum wage. The solution is a voluntary elevation of wages by the corporations. If we don’t want international government regulations then the corporations should take the lead voluntarily. This is good ethically and it is good for the worldwide economy. If factory workers can get great paying jobs it will boost the economy in the entire region. American corporations should take the lead in setting a high living wage as the standard for the EICC Code of Conduct.
This issue cannot continue to be ignored by Americans. If we are complacent about this because we are the beneficiaries of the current status quo, we may also be the big losers in the long run. Don’t think that the world will continue on forever without major revolutions. Don’t be so short sighted that we only think of our own immediate needs. We must relinquish our insistence to be at the top of the food chain. We must dream of a better world, beyond our own borders.
Slide show on You Tube at: http://youtu.be/Pa8QCowQ9tg