The Sojourners organisation is leading a campaign to persuade McDonalds to pay more for tomatoes grown in Florida. They claim that this is an issue of human rights and justice.

Farm workers who pick tomatoes for McDonald's sandwiches earn 40 to 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. Workers who toil from dawn to dusk without the right to overtime pay or any benefits must pick two tons of tomatoes to earn $50 in one day. As a major buyer of Florida tomatoes, McDonald's high-volume, low-cost purchasing practices place downward pressure on farm worker wages, putting corporate profits before human dignity.

The Bible teaches God's command that society be organized so that all members have genuine access to the resources needed to live a decent life and provide for their families. As Christians, we stand with these workers in witnessing against unjust corporate practices that undermine human dignity and chip away at the common good. Please take action today to encourage McDonald's to change these deplorable conditions. (Fair Wages for Farm Workers).

The statement that "society should be organized so that all members have genuine access to the resources needed to live a decent life and provide for their families" is a bit odd. Nevertheless, this sounds like a good cause for Christians. However, before sitting in judgement on McDonalds, we should unpack the problem a little more.

McDonalds contracts tomato growers to supply tomatoes. The tomato growers employ pickers to pick tomatoes. There are probably other intermediaries in the process, but I will keep it simple for the sake of argument.

Mercy or Justice

The first step in resolving this problem is to decide whether justice or mercy is required. Justice has a judicial context. It corrects injustice. An injustice occurs when a person or group of people are harmed as consequence of someone breaking one of God's laws. For example, if someone steals my car an injustice has be done. The biblical solution to that injustice is for the thief to make restitution to their victim. Restitution restores justice.

In the same way, if multinational company takes native lands without payment or permission, a theft has occurred. This crime breaks God's law, so it is an injustice. Justice can only be achieved by the restitution of the land or equivalent financial compensation. Christians should be calling for justice in every situation where an injustice has occurred.

However, there are many other situations where a person or group of people can get into dire circumstances through the struggles of life. They may have made some mistakes or experienced an accident, but no injustice has occurred. These situations require compassion and mercy, not justice. There is no injustice to put right, because none of God's laws has been broken. However, there is plenty of room for mercy, because Christians should always be assisting those in need.

The Responsibility of Employers

The second important issue is to understand the responsibilities of employers to their employees. Many Christians like to quote the prophet Malachi's condemnation of employers who defraud their labourers.

So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the LORD Almighty (Mal 3:5).

Malachi puts those who defraud their labourers in the same basket as liars and adulterers. These are specified as crimes in the Ten Commandments, so defrauding wage earners falls into the same category. Defrauding a labourer is theft, because it deprives him of something that legally belongs to him.

Malachi does not actually specify what these employees were doing. However, we must understand that the prophets did not decide for themselves what is right or wrong. The prophetic role was to challenge those who break God's laws, so we would expect the sins and crimes they challenge to be clearly defined in the Old Testament laws. This is the case.

The law specifies several ways that an employee can be defrauded.

  1. The first is just like every other type of fraud. A person promises to do something and when he has received the benefit refuses to pay for what he has received.

    Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. (Lev 19:13).

    When the work is completed a bad employer might refuse to pay the wages that he had agreed to pay. This beach of contract is a form of robbery.

  2. An employer can defraud a worker by refusing to pay wages promptly. A worker in difficult circumstance should be paid daily, because he might go hungry if he has to wait to the end of the week or the end of the month.

    Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight ( Lev 19:13).

    Late payment of wages can cause real adversity in some situations.

  3. An employer can defraud their employee when they negotiate the wages for the work. If the prospective employees are desperate for work, the employer must not take advantage of their vulnerability when negotiating their wages.

    You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates. (Deut 24:14)

    The word "oppress" (ashaq) means "press upon, oppress, violate, defraud, get deceitfully, extort". An employer who pays someone who is poor and needy less than someone else has defrauded the employee.

Paying a low rate of pay is not a breach of God's law. To show that his law has been broken, prophet would have to show that the employer was paying less to the poor and needy than would be paid to other people.

Low Wages

The Bible does not specify a particular wage rate for particular task. This would be impossible because wages vary according to the type of work and the availability of workers. What is low in America might be high in another country. There is no such thing as a just wage. Biblical justice is more concerned about the process than about the wage level. If the process of wage negotiation were just, the wages are not unjust. A just wage is a rate agreed by two employer and employee without coercion.

The Bible does not forbid the payment of different rates to different people. Jesus said that at employer is free to offer whatever wages he chooses, provided that no one is forced to accept those wages (Matt 20:1-16). Employers can offer a low wage rate, if they choose. If they go too low, they may find that no prospective employees accept their offer. They may have to offer higher wages to get staff. On the other hand, if many people are looking for work, their low offer might be accepted.

Offering a low wage is only wrong, if the person receiving the offer is so destitute that they have not choice but to accept the low wage. Their circumstances mean that they are forced to accept the offer. This is fraud.

Low wages do not prove that an employer has defrauded their workers. Fraud is only proven, if the workers were poor and had no choice but to accept a low wage. They have been robbed because they were forced by circumstances to accept a lower wage than they would normally accept.

A high wage can also be unjust, if threats were used to obtain it.

With this background, I will now look into the Tomato case.

McDonalds

I presume that McDonalds buys the cheapest tomatoes it can obtain, provided the quantity and quality is right. They will also be concerned about continuity of supply, as a lack of tomatoes could be embarrassing for their restaurants.

Buying the cheapest product available is not a sin or a crime. It is something that we all do, when whenever we buy something we need. Choosing the cheapest supplier that meets the required quality and quality standards generally leads to efficient processes. McDonalds is not wrong in looking for the cheapest supplier of tomatoes.

McDonalds functions in a very competitive market. If their sandwiches get too expensive, they might lose market share to other food chains. They will have to manage their supply contracts carefully.

McDonalds could offer a higher contract price for tomatoes. If they did, they would get many more suppliers wanting to grow tomatoes for them. They would have to find another way to choose between prospective suppliers.

The higher priced contract may not go to the existing suppliers. A more expensive supplier that is now uncompetitive may get the contract. If the current supplier loses the contract, the pickers that people are concerned about might not benefit. They may even lose their jobs if the grower stops producing tomatoes.

Justice does not require McDonalds to pay a higher price for tomatoes. If they did pay a higher price than they need to, it would be an act of generosity and not an act of justice.

Corporate Generosity

Is McDonalds required to be generous? This raises and important question for Christians to answer. Do companies have a responsibility to be generous to the poor? We should remember that the mangers and directors of a company are watching over capital/assets that have been entrusted to them by their shareholders. They are stewards acting on behalf of their owners. They can only take actions for which they have been given approval by the shareholders. The articles of the company put boundaries on the range of actions that can be taken by managers and directors.

Managers cannot take the assets of the company for themselves, as that would be stealing. In the same way, unless the articles of the company provide for donations to charity, managers would be stealing if they gave the property of the company away to the poor.

Most Christians will generally do their own giving. Then they can pray and give as God leads. This will generally be more effective than trusting a company to give money away on their behalf. On the other hand, there may be some large projects that can only be funded by a large company. However this should only be done if it is provided for by the company's articles of incorporation.

Forcing companies to be generous is not God's way. Justice is not achieved by coercing generosity.

Tomato Grower

The tomato grower has several options for the use of his land. He has most likely chosen to grow tomatoes because they are the most profitable crop. Choosing a profitable activity is not a sin for an entrepreneur. This is something we do all the time. When buying something, we look for the best price. We choose to work for the employer, who will pay the most for our skills. In general, using land for the most profitable activity is a good practice, because it results in the most efficient use of a limited resource.

The tomato grower could raise the wage rate paid to the tomato pickers. However, there is a limit to what he can do. If he raises the wage rate too high, growing tomatoes might cease to be profitable. He might lose his contract with McDonalds and be unable to sell his tomatoes. If this happened, he would need to switch to a different crop, in which case the tomato pickers might not be required. So a small increase in the wages of tomato pickers might help them, but a larger increase could have the unintended consequence of making their labour redundant.

The supplier contracted to MacDonald pays the pickers piece rates. This is not sinful, if the workers agree to this type of payment. Many people prefer this type of payment because they get rewarded for their extra effort.

The tomato grower is not required to be generous. Christians are required to be generous. We would like non-Christians to follow our example and be generous too, but we cannot force others to be generous. Forcing people to be generous is not God's way. Justice is not achieved by compulsory mercy.

Tomato Pickers

There is no doubt that the tomato pickers are being paid a very low wage rate. However, low wages are not proof of injustice. If the workers have freely agreed to work for these rates, there is no injustice. An injustice has only occurred, if the workers were so poor that they were forced to accept the wages against their will. I do not have enough information to answer that question. However, it is unlikely that all the tomato pickers are destitute. Those who are not destitute would not have accepted the offered wage rate, if they did not think it were reasonable.

If all workers refused the rate offered, then employer would have no choice but to offer a higher rate, or find another way to pick his tomatoes. The fact that tomato grower has been able to employ enough pickers suggests that a significant number of people have freely accepted the wages offered.

Key questions

There are some key questions that need to be asked before coming up with a solution to this problem.

  1. Why is picking tomatoes for low wages the best employment opportunity for these people? Are their no other employment opportunities in the region? It is strange that they cannot find better paying employment, given that they work so hard. Are they living in the wrong place? Maybe they need to move to where there is more work available. Christians could assist them with this.

  2. Are the tomato pickers migrants without education and language skills. Sometimes people accept lower paid work while learning to speak a new language and get skills that will open up better employment.

  3. Are the same people doing this work year after year? I would be worried if that were the case. They might need help with language training and work skills. Christians who are concerned could assist with these.

  4. The pickers might be moving on to better work and being replaced by others after a short time picking tomatoes? If this low paid work is a pathway to better paid employment, it might be a desirable employment for some people.

  5. Why are there no other employers in the region, if there are honest hard-working people looking for work? Maybe there is an opportunity for a Christian entrepreneur, to find a way of utilising these people better.

Evil Structures

I do not see an evil structure at work in this situation. McDonalds are not doing something evil or committing a crime. The Tomato grower might not be being generous, but he does not seem to be sinning.

Justice does not provide a solution to this situation. Mercy would do much better. Mercy would work with the tomato pickers to provide them with education and skills, to give them choices and make them capable of more productive and better paid work.

Even if the tomato pickers are being treated unjustly, the best solution would be for a Christian entrepreneur to set up a business that will provide better work for them.

See Free Markets.