The Disproportionate Share
Here is a common example of this principle: Imagine the person at the top of the corporation who makes much more money than those at the bottom and middle. Why is he so rich? Because he profits from the labor of the lower employees. Without them, he wouldn’t be wealthy. It is just that simple.
Does the CEO actually believe that his hourly wage is worth four hundred times as much as the average worker in his company? All the company’s laborers are working together to produce wealth, and he takes a disproportionate share. It could be said that he is exploiting thousands of people under him to enrich himself. He may justify his disproportionate share by some means, but is he loving his neighbor as himself? If he loved them as himself he would share more equitably the profits they are all creating. Why doesn’t he take his ten million dollar bonus this year and give each of the ten thousand employees a $1,000 bonus?
The difficulty for the follower of Christ who profits from the labors of others is how to do it without exploiting them. He should have his laborers’ interests in mind, treating them just as he would want to be treated if he were in their shoes, a great challenge. But this is not just a challenge for business owners and CEOs. This is an ethical problem for all of us who live in North America.
I’ve previously mentioned the fact that the large majority of our clothing is manufactured overseas by people who work for what we would consider a slave’s wage. If they were paid more, our clothing would cost us more. They would be wealthier and we would be less wealthy. Do we believe that we deserve to be wealthier than they? Can we truthfully say that we work harder, or that our jobs are more difficult than sewing in a sweatshop all day? Through certain clothing purchases, you may be benefiting from the labor of Asian children who work up to twenty hours a day, sleep on a factory floor, and earn as little as $7.50 per month.
Imagine going to a local department store to purchase some clothing. You expect to pay seventy-five dollars for what you’ve selected, but as you stand at the cash register, the store manager drags before you a foreign woman dressed in tattered clothes. She is then forced to open her shabby purse and hand you fifty dollars, which the manager explains is the store’s courtesy-discount on your purchase. Would you feel good about your purchase?
That is an unfair example, some readers may be thinking, because no one is forcing anyone to work in foreign factories. Those cheap foreign laborers are happy to work for what we would consider very low wages, because it provides them with more income than they would otherwise have.
That is often true, but it is possible to justify slavery the same way: “These former savages are so much better off picking cotton on my plantation than they were in the African jungles.” Even if they are, does that make it right for the plantation owner to make himself fabulously rich by exploiting someone’s lot in life, pulling them out of hell and placing them in purgatory? Is that loving our neighbors as ourselves? Is the real motive behind finding cheap foreign labor to lift people out of poverty or to increase our own wealth?
Indeed, those foreign factory workers can now afford a slightly higher standard of living. As things continue to improve for them they can soon purchase things that we export and market to them, often things like cigarettes, cosmetics, pornography, baby formula and MTV. Are they really better off? And as we bombard these developing markets with advertisements to persuade them of all they need to enjoy our good life, we create desires for things they previously never realized they needed, evangelizing them to join us in a deeper consecration to mammon. The entire system is dependent upon lower tiers of poorer people who are continually chasing after the carrot of wealth, hoping to become more like us.
Who benefits from the labor of those very poor people? We do. If through my retirement plan for example, I own stock in a company that employs low-wage foreign workers, I benefit. As the company profits, I profit. My comfortable retirement will be made possible, in part, by the hard work of people who live in shacks. Additionally, every time I purchase a product from that company, it was paid for in part by a poor citizen in the developing world who was willing to work for low wages. If you want to know how often you benefit from cheap overseas labor, just look at the labels on your possessions that reveal the place of manufacture and assembly.