David McLoughlin tackles unacceptable welfare conditions alongside Jesus’ teachings about justice, compassion and integrity in the work place.
14You shall not defraud a poor and destitute labourer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. 15You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is poor and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to YHWH against you and you will incur guilt.
1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ 5 So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. 6 Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ 8 When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ 9 When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. 10 So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ 13 He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? 15 [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The latest edition of the ILO report World Employment and Social Outlook – Trends (WESO) 2020 records how almost half a billion people are in insufficiently paid work. The basis for this is a mixture of inadequate supplies of decent work, global trends in rising unemployment and on-going patterns of inequality and exclusion, especially in developing countries, making it difficult and often impossible for workers to improve their lives and those of their families by work alone.
The expectation is that this has increased by some 2.5 million during the pandemic. This inevitably has significant implications for social cohesion. “In addition to the global number of unemployed (188 million), 165 million people don’t have enough paid work and 120 million have either given up actively searching for work or otherwise lack access to the labour market. In total, more than 470 million people worldwide are affected.“
The trends suggest working poverty is edging up making the UN 2030 First Sustainable Development Goal – eradicating poverty – increasingly improbable. The present definition of working poverty is earning less than £2.66 per day or its purchasing equivalent. The report records that this is now the reality for over 630 million workers, or one in five workers on the planet. But even where people are being paid what seem reasonable wages, many are having to turn to food-banks to get enough basics for their families. And in Birmingham, UK, where I write this, there is a particular issue among thousands of council workers facing a persistent reluctance on the part of the Council, one of Europe’s largest authorities, to recognise long term pay discrimination among low paid women workers in the midst of a cost of living crisis.
Equal pay is a legal issue secured in the Equality Act 2010, while the gender pay gap is a much broader problem in society. It measures the difference between men and women’s average earnings across a labour force as a whole. The official figure of 15.4% is based on the average hourly earnings of all workers, full and part-time. It means that, for every £100 a man earns, a woman would generally earn £84.60. This gap is often larger still if a woman is also part of a minority ethnic group or has a disability.
Recently, the Guardian shared the story of a Ukrainian worker, an IT expert with two university degrees and her partner, who has nearly finished his training to become a doctor. Her 3,000 word account to the Work Rights Centre, details appalling working conditions on the farms she and her partner worked on from August 2021 until they escaped in October 2021. Like many other Ukrainian workers they cannot return to war-torn Ukraine and continue to work illegally in the underground economy.
This echoes the findings of a review by the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published at the end of last year. It recorded that seasonal workers, on a post-Brexit pilot scheme launched in 2019 to harvest fruit and vegetables, were subjected to “unacceptable” welfare conditions with lack of health and safety equipment, racism, and accommodation without bathrooms, running water or kitchens. This provoked Graham O’Neill, the policy manager at the Scottish Refugee Council, to write: “It is dreadful that hundreds of Ukrainians here, worried sick about family, friends and war crimes at home, now find themselves destitute, their seasonal visas expired, due to having to flee conditions on farms.” He called on the Home Secretary to give seasonal workers the right to remain in the UK and bring family members to safety here.
In his parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus describes a common sight in any small town in Galilee. Day-labourers, some of whom would have been smallholders trying to supplement their subsistence living, some landless and destitute, no longer with the support of extended family or local community, some migrants and therefore, strangers to the locals, all vying with each other for available work. Any sense of solidarity and common identity among “the people of God” has long gone. Normally it would be a steward hiring them, as the landowners tended to live in the new cities and had little to do with the day to day running of the estate, but Jesus deliberately includes the owner here to make the link between those at the top of society and those at the base. The normally invisible elite are here made present and, as such, accountable. Jesus heightens the inequalities in the story.
The harvest is grapes and it’s a bumper one. The owner must harvest at the optimum moment for the fruit and so he goes back again and again to the marketplace until he has enough labour to bring in the harvest. The owner offers the first group a denarius, the basic wage for a day’s work. It was enough to keep a small family fed and housed for a day. When he comes back he just tells the next group to go to work and he’ll give them what is right. There is no negotiation. The next are told to go without any reference to pay; similarly for the last few who help for the last hour. Throughout the story the landowner has total control.
The owner tells his steward to pay the workers in reverse, but orders him to give them all a denarius rather than a proportion of the daily wage equivalent to their hours. Those who have worked all day see this as a gesture of contempt, an insult implying that those who have worked all day are no more valuable than those who have worked for an hour. So shaming is the insult that they protest. If they don’t, then the value of their work in the marketplace is undermined and they are implicitly accepting his right to perhaps pay less the next time, with disastrous consequences in that economic climate.
Note the owner does not address the group. He makes an example of one labourer, “My friend, I do you no wrong, did you not agree with me for a denarius?” This implies, falsely, a mutually agreed contract. Then he expels the labourer “Take what is yours and go“. He is sacked, he will not be hired again. The seemingly generous boss is revealed as something quite different: wilful and capricious. He turns to the group and gives his justification, “I choose to give to this last what I give to you first lot“. The money is now his gift, no longer an earned wage. He says their complaint is evil in response to his goodness (literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?”).
He speaks as though the land is his and he controls its fruit and profit, but the Torah teaches that the land is God’s and God alone distributes it to the chosen people of the land. The Torah demands re-distribution in times of need and condemns hoarding for profit. Even the denarius he so generously gives is a subsistence wage. Read in this way Jesus’ story takes his listeners into the heart of the covenant and its liberating effect. It heightens the perversion of the covenant by the powerful rich, but it also shows up the lack of solidarity among the workers themselves – the rich man can isolate one worker and silence their initial protest. I think the debate in the village after this parable must have gone on a long time!
Note again what Jesus is doing in these parables. He is drawing on the experience of the people, provoking them to see their world clearly but from a renewed perspective, that of ‘the kingdom of God’, and inviting them to become subjects of their own history. He empowers the exploited and oppressed to re-claim their history, to see it anew, and to participate in creating it. In reading these texts we tend to spiritualise them and take from them a personal message – what do they mean for me? We miss their essential provocative nature and their call to renew a collective vision of a creation under God. Here all are of equal worth and the distribution and sharing of the earth’s goods, and solidarity in its service, are at the centre of our collective concern, rather than accumulation for profit and personal security.
Jesus’ life did not offer an alternative based on abstract ethical demands. It is not a worked out system. But it does provide some basic principles for an alternative critical practice: the practice of the reign of Abba, based on a common life of mutual compassion, forgiveness and engagement. His life inspired his disciples to prolong the logic of his practice in the new historical situations they would have to face. The main reason for the Church to exist is to bear witness to the possibility of that practice of Jesus continuing in the world.
These stories are part of an on-going critique at the heart of the gospel of any political, religious and economic order that undermines the rule or kingdom of God, that would destroy the dignity of any of God’s children, break our essential solidarity, or perverts the central institutions and structures that were meant to manifest and realise the merciful and abundant goodness of the Creator.
Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849, Oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.
The Stone Breakers was a realist painting by the French artist, Gustave Courbet which was destroyed when a transport vehicle moving pictures to a castle near Dresden was bombed by Allied forces in February 1945.
It depicts two peasants, a young man and an old man, breaking rocks. Created on a large scale usually reserved for history painting, Courbet replaced the traditional classical hero with members of the working class. With the rise of the class conflict of the 1848 Revolution in France, many viewers found this scene most unsettling.
Labour was a major issue in the second half of the 19th century due to decades of industrialisation that had radically changed the nature of work in rural and urban areas. Artists could not help but address the very subject of employment so both peasants and urban workers became common subjects. And with the development of mechanical reproduction, including printing and photography, questions also arose about what now constituted “art”, what was its purpose and value financially as well as aesthetically? Although our understanding of labour shifted drastically in the 19th century, it was not the first time that artists depicted workers. Agricultural labour has appeared in the visual arts since at least the Middle Ages in both sacred and secular formats.
A combination of rural food shortages and the growth of unskilled urban, industrial workers in the early 19th century led to increasing civil unrest that erupted across Europe with the Revolutions of 1848. In the midst of these political upheavals, a concern for the plight of the working classes mixed with an increasing demand for artists to depict scenes of their own time resulted in artists who began to address social concerns in their works. This painting is a direct commentary on the poverty that had become so pervasive.
Two men, one young and one old, are shown performing the lowest form of manual labour: breaking apart stones to make gravel for roads. Courbet uses a limited colour palette to present the scene in a very factual way. He was criticized for this because it implied that he paid no more attention to the human figures than to the stones, yet this was the whole point. These workers weren’t valued any more than the stones they broke. Courbet wanted to show the hard labour that so many people experienced at the expense of the wealthy elite. These two men are faceless as it is only their work that matters to their bosses. Their torn clothes and frugal meal (mid-right) emphasize the starkness of their poverty. Courbet did not paint the men’s faces or emotions, because they represent “every man” who has to earn a crust, rather than specific individuals.
Courbet used painting techniques uncharacteristic of traditional academic painting such as applying the pigment with a knife which created a thicker, coarser texture, atypical of the polished French Neo-Classical style of his times. Turner had already developed this technique in England against much comparable criticism. By illustrating the back-breaking nature of this type of work, Courbet condemns the cyclical nature of poverty with his sombre palette. He asks us to question this status quo since many depictions of rural labourers had become increasingly sentimentalized and nostalgic; by romanticising their dire situation, the working classes were further abused and even less able to escape this slavery.
Therefore, this is a scene without hope or salvation. It suggests that the poor man’s life is predetermined and unchanging; those who are born poor will die poor, and the young stone breaker will become poorer the longer he works in this way. It is therefore interesting that The Stone Breakers was painted one year after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote their influential pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto. And that in our current times, with construction companies specialising in electric diggers and bulldozers, this kind of work is reserved as punishment for criminals.
Notice that the two stone breakers are positioned against the low hill of the rural French town Ornans, where the artist was born and brought up. The hill reaches to the top of the canvas except the right corner, where a tiny patch of blue sky is visible. Courbet’s purpose was to isolate the labourers and imply that they are physically and economically trapped. This is the reality of their lives and of so many workers, and that the man and boy are too old and too young for this type of manual labour. It should be illegal to make them work like this and the texture, colours and harsh brushstrokes enhance this idea of forced labour in unjust conditions. Rough strokes to represent rough stones.
In order to ensure that this scene would be authentic, Courbet rode his family wagon near Ornans in 1849. When he saw two labourers crushing stones into pebbles for the roadbed, he summoned them to his workshop and had them stand for a portrait. Later, in a handwritten letter, he explained the artwork: “It is made up of two pitiful figures: one is an elderly person, an ancient machine stiffened by duty and age. His burnt head is protected by a straw hat that has become darkened by dirt and moisture. His arms appear springy, and he is clad in a coarse linen shirt. A tobacco bag made of a horn with bronze borders can be seen in his red-striped waistcoat. His hefty pants, which could stand on their own, expose a huge spot at the knee, sitting on a straw matting; through his old blue stockings, one can see his heels in his broken wooden shoes.
Next to him is a young man of around 15 years of age who is afflicted by scurvy. His shirt is a shambles of soiled linen, revealing his arms and side. A shovel, a primitive kettle in which they transport their lunchtime soup, and a slice of brown bread in a scrip are spread on the floor. All of this occurs in broad daylight, next to a roadside ditch. I didn’t make any of it up, my comrade.”
Courbet defied the authority of the state by publicly refusing the award of the Legion of Honour for his art, declaring his independence from any form of government, and while he called himself a “republican by birth” he did not take up arms during the 1848 Revolution, adhering to his pacifist beliefs. He played an active political role during the Paris Commune of 1871 but was arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment for his involvement in the destruction of the Vendôme Column, a symbol of Napoleonic authority. In 1873, fearing persecution by the newly installed government, Courbet went into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1877.
We ask a blessing on all those
who work with joy and delight,
in the labour of their hands and minds.
We pray in solidarity with those without work,
and without the hope of work.
Inspire us to work to change the circumstances
of those who are badly treated or inadequately paid.
Together, may our work make a difference for the good,
restoring the solidarity and community of your creation.
We give thanks for your gift of Jesus the worker
who has shown us the way to you and to each other.
And we thank you for his Spirit who lives in our hearts,
guiding all our ways into your creative life.