Living wages as an ethical demand

Published 7:02 pm Saturday, July 11, 2015

The standard argument against requiring employers to pay their employees a living wage is simple — raising the minimum wage is bad for profits. It is fairly obvious, but worth mentioning, that the way one makes a profit is by creating as much surplus value from the labor of their employees as possible. In other words, in order to maximize profits you have to pay workers less money for more labor, goods, etc. This basic economic principle becomes the most obvious in the case of the extremely profitable sweatshops in poor countries where working conditions are so inhumane they border on being slave labor. This illustrates a fundamental reality of our modern economic situation, which is that exploiting people is extremely profitable.

This raises an important ethical question. Should profits really be the “bottom line” for how we, as a society, make our decisions? Exploitation is profitable, but is it right? It is precisely because paying workers a livable wage is not directly profitable for corporations that we have an ethical imperative to demand it. We should be realistic here, corporations are going to make decisions based on what is most profitable. If exploiting people is profitable then they will do it to the extent that they are legally allowed.

The first priority of our policy makers in North Carolina should be their responsibility to people, and not to profits. This is not just an economic issue, it is an ethical one. This is why religious leaders have become some of the most vocal proponents of demanding a livable minimum wage. The Vatican has consistently made living wages a focus of Catholic ethics ever since Pope Leo XIII brought attention to the issue in his 1891 encyclical “On Capital and Labor,” and Pope Francis has continued to focus on it in recent years. However, it is not just a concern to Catholics. In a 2014 letter to congress a group of religious leaders from a broad range of traditions and denominations wrote the following:

“We represent diverse faith traditions, but we share a common conviction that the dignity of work and the security of the family are non-negotiable moral values. Driven by Scripture’s repeated admonitions against exploiting and oppressing workers, we believe that every job must enable those who work to support a family.”

The policy makers in Raleigh need to be reminded that paying workers a livable minimum wage is not merely an economic issue, it is an ethical issue. Voting against it is not being fiscally responsible, it is being irresponsible to the thousands of hard working North Carolinians who continue to struggle to provide for themselves and their families. Fifteen dollars an hour is a reasonable demand for a livable minimum wage and would help thousands of North Carolinians and their families stay out of poverty.

Ryne Beddard is a Washington resident and a religion studies graduate of Mount Olive College. He will attend the University of Denver in the fall.