Jesus told a story about a group of people on zero-hours contracts. Well, not exactly, I’m paraphrasing, but I think this captures it.
Anyway, this group of people would turn up at their Agency first thing in the morning, hoping there would be work for them. One morning, very early, Mrs Merlot from the fruit farm also came into the Agency, looking for workers. She arranged for 10 of them to come and work for her. “It’ll be hard work,” she said, “and a long day, 8 ‘til 6, with an hour for lunch. But I’ll pay you a proper wage for the day, £8.45 an hour is the Living Wage, so that’s £76.05 for the day.”
The workers agreed, and went off in her mini-bus to work. The rest of the workers stayed at the office. They didn’t dare go home, in case someone else came in looking for workers, but they didn’t know how long they would be hanging around waiting.
At 9 o’clock, Mrs Merlot came back. “Everything is coming ripe at the same time,” she said. “I need another bus-full of workers. Same deal as before.” “You mean £8.45 an hour,” asked one of the people waiting. “No, £76.05 for the day, until 6pm, enough to live on,” she replied.
So 10 more people agreed to the terms and were driven off in the minibus.
At noon, and again at 3pm, Mrs Merlot came back again, in need of another 10 workers to come and work in the fields until 6pm, again offering £76.05 for the day’s work. Finally, she returned just before 5pm.
“Are you lot still here,” she said to the raggle-taggle bunch of dejected workers who had waited all day in vain for some hours work. “Have you had nothing better to do? Never mind, I’ve still got work to be done. Get in, and you can work the last hour for me, just like the others.”
The last 8 people climbed aboard the minibus and soon arrived at the field, which was full of people picking fruit.
When the rest of the workers learned that the last 8 people would be getting paid the same amount for working an hour as those who had worked all day, there was outrage. At 6pm, when the workers came to be paid, someone who had been there since 8am made his point.
“This is totally unfair. We’ve been slaving away all day in the field, and now we discover that we’re not getting any more than this lot, who only turned up for an hour!”
“Have you got a problem with that?” asked Mrs Merlot. “You agreed terms, and came to work on that basis. I’ll pay you everything we agreed. The worker deserves a decent wage for her or his time. It’s up to me what I choose to pay, it’s my business.”
Perhaps this is really a story about eternal life, a gift whether you are reconciled to God near the beginning or near the end of your life. But it is told as a picture of the kingdom of heaven, and I believe we should be in the business of bringing kingdom values to bear in this world and not just the next. After all, we do pray, ‘your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’.
It was important to the owner of the farm that the workers were paid what was just and right for a day’s work. Without a proper wage, workers cannot pay for their homes, food, and family responsibilities. Wages today don’t seem to be right or just. That’s why I’m an advocate for the Living Wage, so people have enough to live on. And that’s also why we need to stop casual labour becoming standard practice. Zero-hours contracts for people who are looking for regular work; counting people as self-employed to avoid holiday and sick pay; the gig economy, where income is unpredictable; and care workers not paid for their travel time. All these things make work insecure, and therefore make life insecure.
And the owner of the farm was also very clear that she would decide what to do with her money. In the kingdom of heaven, she decided to pay it to her workers. Meanwhile on earth, less and less money is being paid in wages, and more and more is being paid out to the holders of capital. In the US, since the mid 70s, wages as a percentage of national income have fallen 7%, while corporate profits have risen 7% (see this article). Across the world, the same pattern is seen, the ‘labour share’ of national income has been falling. A falling labour share implies that even though workers are more productive and make more money for the businesses they work for, these gains no longer get returned to workers in the form of rises in pay. Instead, an ever larger share of the benefits of growth is given to owners of capital. Even among wage-earners the rich have done vastly better than the rest: the share of income earned by the top 1% of workers has increased since the 1990s even as the overall labour share has fallen (more here).
It’s not always easy to articulate the relationship between faith and politics. When I read the Bible, it’s easy to see God’s concern for the poor and the values of justice shining out. But it’s less obvious whether this translates into a right-wing or left-wing approach to achieving those aims. It’s also possible to look at earthly versions of these approaches, that is, to see whether the actual political parties are concerned for the poor and for justice. To me, this also demonstrates an obvious answer, but others see it differently . So I was looking for a more fundamental expression of what feels incontestable in my core, but isn’t always easy to express. So here it is, for me, a Biblical model of why, as a Christian, I am and could only be a Labour voter. Check out the Labour Party manifesto on a fair deal at work.