Sunday, July 23, 2006

Is How I Treat a Housecleaner a Justice Issue?

Some time ago a pastor asked me how churches could become involved in justice issues other than lobbying government. It is an important question, for the Bible, especially Romans 13, clearly indicates that government has been established, ordained, by God to mind the business of justice.

Perhaps lobbying strikes church leaders as a tainted activity, given its association with bribery, both subtle and overt. But, in a pure sense, to be present with leaders, both those who form policy and those who implement it, is a good thing. We must always keep in mind that while we are to submit to government, in a democracy each of us bears responsibility for government actions. Thus, when we speak to government we do not do so as supplicants, but as stakeholders.

But is this all? That is the question. I think we also must look at how we act in our own lives. What are the justice issues that we encounter, if not day by day, at least now and again?

In a review/discussion of You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again by Suzanne Hansen, Caitlin Flanagen (The Atlantic Monthly, June 2006) delves into the question of justice towards those who work for us. The use of hired help, of servants, is becoming more and more prevalent in our society. People hire house cleaners and lawn cutters, and having a nanny is not all that uncommon.

Flanagan points out that these people are frequently mistreated, especially if they live-in or are present on a regular basis. Flanagan quotes another writer, Cheryl Mendelson in Home Comforts (a book my wife is gradually reading through) – Mendelson points out that people who work in our homes frequently have a job with ‘no health benefits, no pension plans, no vacation pay, no job security, no hope of advancement, and no redress for grievances and injustices except to leave a job they may desperately need.”

So, one of the things we can do about justice is examine any employer – employee relationships that we are involved in. Because it is our pocket book, do we in any way exploit them? Do we fulfill basic responsibilities for their well being?

Here is a thought. Perhaps this could be approached from the stand point of stewardship. A steward in an ancient household had servants under him. But, he knew that he was acting on behalf of his master. Thus, as employers, we should only see ourselves as stewards representing Christ in the employee/employer relationship.

Final quote from Ms. Flanagan: “When a wealthy woman hires an eighteen-year old girl as a live-in nanny, she has bought herself some help, but she has also – if she is a decent person—given herself the responsibility of taking a motherly interest in the young person.”

3 comments:

Rooster said...

I think that how we could theoretically act in an employer / employee relationship certainly is a justice issue - just to address the rhetoric posed in your header.

Maybe the problem with the whole idea is our skewed perception on justice. So often we immediately gravitate to thoughts of law or government or some sort of "warm-fuzzy" feeling of fairness shared by all when we first think of the manifestation of justice in our world. Perhaps we should strive to learn what true justice is by aligning ourselves to the patterns of The Just One. Alike to the concept of learning love from The Lover, or striving for holiness or righteousness by first conceding that these qualities in their absolute form are found in and shown by The Holy One and The Righteous One alone.

I'm encouraged that you are not content to brood or sit. What you do and how you think has ripple effects that move towards me in the pond of our lives. Thanks for opening your thoughts in this manner.

Irene Mellott said...

There is much we can do, starting from within our church, to ensure there is justice for workers. WE can make a difference if only focusing on two aspects: 1. Wage fairness 2. Provide benefits to ALL part-time workers.

Let’s start with the latter issue. Like any organization churches hire part-time staff however, these staff may not have the required hours to receive health care benefits or participate in pension plans or vacation accrual. Part-time personnel are often in greatest need of benefits such as subsidized health care, short term and long term disability, and dental plans. Private plans are available but are very costly as compared to group plans. Private plans require the applicant to pay 100% of the bill whereas group plans have the employer subsidizing a portion of. And what is the message we are conveying? We value and support full-time staff (and part-time staff working over a said amount of hours) by providing them with an option to participate in the company’s benefits package. Many persons would love to work more hours but for various reasons, are not able to. Reasons may be personal or church related (e.g. church cannot justify the position becoming full-time.) Why should not everyone be entitled to receive the same benefits if they so choose?

Wages: For years, not-for-profit agencies, like churches, have traditionally paid their employees less than the private sector. One will receive a variety of rationales if the why question is raised. The bottom line is that there is disparity. Ideally, not-for-profit and for-profit wages should be in close proximity. The reality is that churches pay substantially less. If equal wages is not possible than let them be, at the very least, fair wages. Fair wages not poverty wages.

Where is the justice for workers? The example should be shown from us, the church. By providing benefits and fair wages for our part-time staff we are means for ending the cycle of poverty.

Irene Mellott said...

There is much we can do, starting from within our church, to ensure there is justice for workers. WE can make a difference if only focusing on two aspects: 1. Wage fairness 2. Provide benefits to ALL part-time workers.

Let’s start with the latter issue. Like any organization churches hire part-time staff however, these staff may not have the required hours to receive health care benefits or participate in pension plans or vacation accrual. Part-time personnel are often in greatest need of benefits such as subsidized health care, short term and long term disability, and dental plans. Private plans are available but are very costly as compared to group plans. Private plans require the applicant to pay 100% of the bill whereas group plans have the employer subsidizing a portion of. And what is the message we are conveying? We value and support full-time staff (and part-time staff working over a said amount of hours) by providing them with an option to participate in the company’s benefits package. Many persons would love to work more hours but for various reasons, are not able to. Reasons may be personal or church related (e.g. church cannot justify the position becoming full-time.) Why should not everyone be entitled to receive the same benefits if they so choose?

Wages: For years, not-for-profit agencies, like churches, have traditionally paid their employees less than the private sector. One will receive a variety of rationales if the why question is raised. The bottom line is that there is disparity. Ideally, not-for-profit and for-profit wages should be in close proximity. The reality is that churches pay substantially less. If equal wages is not possible than let them be, at the very least, fair wages. Fair wages not poverty wages.

Where is the justice for workers? The example should be shown from us, the church. By providing benefits and fair wages for our part-time staff we are means for ending the cycle of poverty.