“The Worker Deserves His Wages”-
Why Jeremy Corbyn is right to demand a fairer sharing of profits
In 1980 the average CEO of a UK FTSE 100 company earned 18 times the average worker. Today they earn 180 times. Meanwhile, over recent years average workers' wages have reduced or stagnated. The world's 62 richest people now own as much as the 3.6 billion poorest half of the world, having seen their wealth grow by £1/2 trillion over the last 5 years. And yet most of the super-rich still take extreme measures to put their wealth beyond the tax man’s reach. The very richest are gorging themselves on an increasingly grotesque share of the world’s wealth and resources, leaving the rest of us, especially the poorest, dwindling slender portions. We can’t just blame David Cameron. This is a global trend developing over at least three decades.
This is why I applaud Jeremy Corbyn’s recent proposals to give UK workers a greater share in their employers’ profits as part of reversing this unhealthy trend. Two of the key proposals were to give workers of medium & large employers a 5 % share in their employers’ businesses and ban shareholder’s dividends until a company paid their workers’ the living wage. As an evangelical Christian I believe such policies are in line with God’s values revealed in the bible. If we look for it, there are plenty of pointers there to how He wants us to share the world's resources.
A biblical pattern
The starting point is that we are not the ultimate owners of anything in this world. “The earth is the Lord's and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1) We are merely tenants and stewards of what we have and shall one day have to account to God for how we have used His world’s resources. (Matthew 25:14-30)
We see a clear pattern in the bible of how God’s people were to share their resources. This started during their 40 years of wandering in the desert when He gave the Israelites manna & quail to eat, ensured they were shared fairly: ”...the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.” (Exodus 16:18).This was a precursor to how they were to share the Promised Land when they finally entered it; to be divided fairly and evenly between all tribes, clans and individual families, “based on the number of names”. Everyone was to have their stake in it (quite different to how successful invading armies in the rest of history have distributed the winning portions). Under Kings David and Solomon, although the kings grew rich, generally the people continued to enjoy their stake in the land, “everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.” (1 Kings 4:25). However, as their kings and rulers turned away from the Lord, they oppressed the people and there was a growing inequality. The rich ruling elite accumulated great wealth for themselves at the expense of the people generally, and especially the poor whom they exploited. (Does this sound at all familiar today?) Through his prophets the Lord spoke out his anger at this evil . For example, In Isaiah 3:14-15:
“The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: … the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?”
The Lord punished the Israelites who were forced into exile. Yet He made clear His plan that His people should be restored to their land and once again each would be given their own fair share of the land’s resources; “You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel.” (Ezekiel 47:21-23). They Lord’s did return. However, sadly, the fair distribution of resources did not last long. Inequality, poverty and exploitation soon returned.
And so the time of Jesus, God’s own Son. What remained of God’s people were now living under the Romans’ yoke. Jesus’s mission in one sense was completely apolitical and yet in another was and is very political. He established a new order, the Kingdom of God, where ordinary folk were invited to the “top table”, to sup with the King (Matthew 22). Ultimately that new order will be fully realised when He returns to earth to establish His new Jerusalem (Mark 14:62 /Revelation 21). In that Kingdom there will no more exploitation or poverty. Every citizen will be a co-ruler with Jesus, enjoying God’s full abundant blessings (2 Timothy 12/Revelation 21). And through His very first followers Jesus gave us the ultimate pattern of sharing our resources now in Acts 4; “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”
God has made clear through his Word His desire that everyone should have a fair share in the world’s resources and that excessive hording of wealth, whilst others go without, is an evil for which we will be judged.
I am certainly not prescribing a mathematically equal division of wealth. The bible is clear that men should be rewarded according to their efforts. “He will reward each person according to what he has done.” (Matthew 16:18). However, the bible emphasises that “From everyone who has given much, much will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48). Certainly therefore it is perfectly proper that owners/ managers of successful businesses should enjoy the fruits of their own efforts. But do CEOs of large companies really deserve to be paid 180 times the average ordinary worker? Most of them owe their success not just to hard work, but gifts that they have been given; natural abilities and (for many) being born into rich families with good connections and a good private education.
It’s not just unjust, it's unhealthy
The excessive accumulation of wealth by a small rich elite is not just unjust but economically and socially unhealthy for us all. Reversing that trend should have three particular benefits.
Low productivity is a particular issue in the UK, where our worked are now producing significantly less (goods or services) per hour than our major competitor. We are increasingly becoming a high employment but low wage low productivity economy. Many believe one way to help reverse this trend is to incentivize workers by giving them a greater and more direct stake in their employers’ businesses. Jeremy’s proposed 5% profit share would for example give the average BT employee an extra £1,200 a year. This is what some more enlightened and successful businesses, like John Lewis, already do. It is what is effectively required by law in France. Perhaps it is no coincidence that French workers produce about 30% more per hour than we do.
Oiling the wheels of the economy
The growing concentration of wealth in a rich elite is decreasing the available spending power of ordinary people. This is bad economics. The super-rich, increasingly soaking up the wealth, tend to hoard that wealth (especially off shore) rather than spend it. The rest of us however tend to spend the vast majority of our income. If ordinary people don’t have the disposable income to buy the goods and services businesses are selling in the end all incomes suffer, even for the rich.
Increased taxes for better public services
Most of the super-rich put a lot of their wealth beyond the tax man’s reach. If more of that wealth was diverted into the pockets of ordinary folk the government’s tax take would significantly increase, because we aren’t able to take advantage of the same tax loopholes as them and on average as a percentage of income pay more tax than big corporations and their super-rich owners. This would give government the extra funds it badly needs to pay for our badly under resourced public services. After all, even the rich elite directly or indirectly benefit from public services; through the supporting infrastructure provided to themselves, their businesses and their employees.
Some would argue that despite the extreme imbalance in the end everyone benefits as the wealth the super-rich generates “trickles down” to us all. The only problem is the facts no longer support this. It used to be true, but for decades now, both nationally and globally, the proportion of the wealth generated by business going to ordinary workers rather than the owners has steadily fallen. Meanwhile real average wages have stagnated or fallen and private investment in the economy are at historically low levels. Certainly I would not advocate a communist-style economy with enforced equality and no opportunity to reap financial rewards from our own efforts. This stifles innovation and is good for no one. However, all we are talking about here is tweaking the capitalist system to put some limits on the extremes of disproportionate profit grabbing for the few at the top and provide a greater reward for their efforts for the many below them. It’s a recognition that pure free market capitalism on its own does not deliver a prosperity that benefits all.
Lessons from history
Looking back over history it was the same sort of arguments establishment voices put to oppose virtually every proposal for economic and social justice over the past 200 years and in every case those fears proved false:
- the abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago
- factory reforms to control excessive hours and dangerous conditions from the late 19th century onwards
- increased taxes on the rich to fund the welfare state & the NHS in the first half of the twentieth century
- employment rights from the 1970s onwards to prevent unfair and discriminatory treatment at work
- the introduction of a minimum wage.
The Labour Party has a proud history of promoting such economic and social reform. In doing so they have been realising in a small way the “justice for the poor” that Jesus will ultimately bring when He returns. (Isaiah 11:4). And it was that biblical vision that inspired Christians like Kier Hardie to help found the Labour Party. New Labour had far too often forgotten that mission for social justice. To be relevant today Labour needs to renew that mission through developing new policies like these. We certainly cannot rely on the Tory Party deliver such reform; the party that opposed nearly every one of these previous reforms when they were first proposed.
A vision for the future
I recently watched the sci-fi film “Elysium”, a dystopian vision of our world in the 22nd century. A rich elite build themselves a hermetically sealed, technologically advanced paradise in a space station above the earth. Meanwhile, the millions below them languish on a dying earth. It takes a Christ-like act of sacrifice for that paradise to be invaded and the benefits of Elysium brought to earth. We need a democratic invasion of the current Elysium that the rich elite are now building for themselves; to share the benefit of their wealth with the many. The proposals for enforced profit sharing would be just part of that democratic invasion. And it falls to the Labour Party to call us to arms.