Labor, Wages Often Overlooked as Sermon Topics


The Bible has much to say about both labor and wages that ministers can use to address these often overlooked topics over Labor Day weekend, Dawes says. (Image courtesy of suphakit73/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

A former Amazon.com employee said the company's staff evaluation practice was "purposeful Darwinism."

Another said, "Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves."

The leading online retailer's workplace conditions were addressed in a New York Times expose based on interviews with more than 100 current and former employees.

Leading issues included an expectation that employees respond to emails and texts at all hours, and poor evaluations following time off to address personal crises.

"The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions," the subtitle summarized.

As an Amazon Prime member who orders frequently from the company, I found the report troubling if it accurately reflects working conditions.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos responded with a letter to employees stating he didn't recognize the Amazon described and urging them to report instances resembling those mentioned.

The negative publicity continued with an op-ed by Joe Nocera, recalling a 2011 story about poor working conditions in Amazon's warehouses with claims similar to what appeared in the expose.

Amazon's practices raise two questions, Nocera wrote, "How disposable are people?" and "Is Amazon unique or is it the future of the workplace?"

Whatever one thinks about the Amazon portrayed in these reports - accurate assessment, skewed perspectives of disgruntled employees or something in between - an editorial on the expose in Fast Company, an online business magazine founded by former Harvard Business Review editors, says Amazon is not unique.

"Few organizations have figured out how to innovate, adapt and create amazing things without burning their people out," the article emphasized, an unsettling reality when that means a widespread prioritization of profits, productivity or both over employees' well-being.

Working conditions, treatment of employees and balancing labor with rest are particularly poignant topics as Labor Day (Sept. 7) approaches, a holiday that emerged from the struggle for improved working conditions, specifically the pursuit of an eight-hour workday.

The Bible has much to say about both labor and wages that ministers can use to address these often overlooked topics over Labor Day weekend.

They can also inform how Christians engage and respond to news stories such as the Amazon expose.

The Bible consistently emphasizes working faithfully, diligently for one's employers.

Genesis 2:15 establishes work as a fundamental human task, while the Proverbs (12:24 and 3:4, for example) are full of exhortations to work hard and avoid laziness.

Translating the troubling slave-master language of Ephesians 6 into a context of employee-employer relations, the text urges employees to work enthusiastically and employers to treat workers well.

Rest from labor is presented as equally important.

Exodus 20:8-11, Leviticus 23:3 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 restrict labor to six days with a seventh for rest, built upon the fact that God rested after six days of creation (Genesis 2:2-3).

Sabbath is a central disagreement between Jesus and contemporary religious leaders (see Matthew 12, for example) - not whether to observe Sabbath, but its purpose and practice.

A number of studies over the past few years have connected rest - evenings / weekends and vacations - to increased productivity and employee satisfaction. Resting from labor is both biblical and good for business.

Compensation for labor is addressed as well.

Jesus sets forth what was likely a common adage, "workers are due their wages," (Luke 10:7) in sending out disciples to share his teachings.

James 5:4 informs employers, "The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you."

These teachings build on precedent established in the Hebrew Scriptures (see Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:15 and Jeremiah 22:13).

These texts should prompt Christians to reflect on several questions:

  • Compensation: minimum wage or living wage?
  • Workers: unique individuals who are valued and cultivated or interchangeable parts to be used until they reach a breaking point and then replaced?
  • Time off: evenings, weekends, vacation and time to address family crises or a consistent expectation of checking email or answering phone calls no matter the time or circumstances?

The late Baptist social reformer Walter Rauschenbusch offered a prayer for employers in "Prayers for the Social Awakening" in 1910.

"We invoke thy grace and wisdom, O Lord, upon all men who employ and control the labor of men. ... Since they hold the power over the bread, the safety and the hopes of the workers, may they wield their powers justly and with love," Rauschenbush prayed.

He later added, "When they are tempted to sacrifice human health and life for profit ... bring to naught the counsels of the heartless. ... Raise up among us employers who shall be makers of men as well as of goods."

This is a needed reminder for Christians to pursue just, compassionate workplace practices, especially when reports indicate a widespread tendency to emphasize profits and productivity over people.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.

Editor's note: EthicsDaily.com's Labor Day resources are available here.

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