Friday, November 12, 2010

Prophetic voices and wage theft

As I became aware of God’s heart for justice in the world, other progressive evangelical friends pointed me toward the book of the prophet Amos. I had skipped through Amos when I was a young teen-aged dude in conservative Central Pennsylvania, and the only thing that stuck out to me was that the seemingly hot-tempered prophet called the women of Israel “cows” (4:1), which, being a young teen, I thought was absurd and hilarious. Now it’s as if I can’t avoid the provocative language of Amos. My InterVarsity small group in college studied it, and it keeps showing up in the e-mail alerts I receive from organizations like Sojourners.

So what does Amos say? Like the other “minor” prophets, not much when compared to wordier books of the bible. Just something about how God’s anger burns against those who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6-7) And that hot-headed prophet who insulted good and proper ladies? Amos actually defended Israel from the wrath of the righteous Lord, pleading with God to spare the descendants of Jacob (Chapter 7).

Today the voice of Amos means more to me than ever before. I have the incredible opportunity to work with a national organization called Interfaith Worker Justice, which strives to organize religious communities to support low wage-earning workers, and I have already come into contact with horrendous stories of exploitation and abuse. Workers may log 60 or 70 hours, but they’ll only receive 40 hours of pay. Minimum wage is often ignored. Laid-off workers don’t receive their final paycheck. Using the language of IWJ and other worker rights advocates, they are victims of wage theft.

Put in the simplest of terms, wage theft is the practice of paying workers less than they earned. Through the blood, sweat, and tears (and even deaths) of past activists, in the United States we now have laws that establish a minimum wage, prohibit child labor, and protect the right of workers to organize. While those laws are still on the books, far too many workers fall through the cracks. The most discouraging thing is that the victims are often recent immigrants, and they both do not know their rights as workers and are terrified at the threat of deportation. In fact, labor law applies to all workers, regardless of immigration status, and as a Christian, I can’t help but draw a parallel to Leviticus 19:33, in which God commands the Israelites to treat the foreigner as a native-born

I am incredibly proud that I can help IWJ in raising awareness of the “crime wave no one talks about”. Affiliates in the IWJ network and outside allies are organizing in dozens of cities to demand an end to wage theft on the National Day of Action Against Wage Theft on Nov. 18, despite the decidedly anti-worker atmosphere of the current atmosphere of economics and politics. On second thought, it is precisely because of this poisonous atmosphere that we “prophecy to the hills” (Ezekiel 6). As people of faith, we are not only aware of God’s blessings on earth, but we are also aware of how the events on earth are different from what God intends. It is then our responsibility to testify to that which we know: that we are capable of better than denying workers their earned wages, abusing outdated laws to oppress a generation,  and systematically creating a society of inequality and strife.

The voice of Amos is indeed strong today.

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