- Feb 14th, 2012
Wage theft occurs when workers are paid less than what the law requires. It includes not being paid all your wages, being paid below minimum wage, being denied overtime when you should be paid for it, or not being paid at all for the work you’ve performed. When employers violate the law and deprive a worker of legally mandated wages, they are guilty of wage theft. Wage theft is a widespread and pervasive across many types of industries.
There are four scriptures that immediately come to mind when I began to think about wage theft and the Bible.
Leviticus 19:13 (NRSV)
“You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal, and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”
Deuteronomy 24: 14-15 (NRSV)
“You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or immigrants who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”
Jeremiah 22:13-17 (NIV)
“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red.
“Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord.
“But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest fain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.”
James 5:4 (NRSV)
“Listen! The wages of laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
These are just 4 examples that come to my mind right now, but what I have learned about workers’ rights and the bible is that we are given very clear instructions on how to treat workers, and about how workers are to be paid.
During my time as a United Methodist Missionary assigned to the Workers Interfaith Network in Memphis, Tennessee, I have seen many workers come into our Workers Rights Center and discover that they have been victims of wage theft. One story that has really stood out to me is of Fernando Santiago.
Fernando was a waiter at Mis Pueblos, a Mexican restaurant in Memphis, and he was only being paid in tips. The law requires that waiters be paid $2.13 an hour plus tips; if this does not bring the waiter to $7.25 an hour, than the restaurant are responsible for making up the difference.
After attending a “Know Your Rights” training one Thursday evening, Fernando and the Workers Interfaith Network discovered that he was owed tens of thousands of dollars. We also realized that Fernando had been making $3.85 an hour. If you take into account only my stipend and my food allowance each month, I am making a very similar hourly rate as Fernando. Now this does not take into account my health insurance and housing being provided, but I immediate recognize the difficulty that this can cause. I also realize that I am only one person and not trying to support anyone besides myself.
Wage theft can affect anyone, though it usually is prevalent within minority communities. There is no age group that is more prone to it than another one. It could be affecting one of your family members, your neighbors, someone you go to church with, or even a friend. This isn’t an issue that should be dividing people based on political party identification, but instead it is one that we as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, or even those without a faith background should be concerned with.
If you are interested in learning more about wage theft, and what to do if you or someone you know that may have experienced wage theft visit:
An earlier version of this reflection was originally published Nov. 20, 2011 by Zachary Ferguson on his blog Walking in Memphis at http://zachiswalkinginmemphis.blogspot.com/. It is reposted here with permission.
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Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.
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