Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Wal-Mart public relations onslaught has begun

Wal-Mart has been advised to undergo a media make-over to undo its image as an abusive, discriminatory, predatory, employer and buyer. The public relations onslaught has begun. I don't mind it, I think it is probably healthy for the company to highlight what they do well.

However, what I don't like is when media organizations swallow the lines, lock stock and barrell. Over at ChristianityToday.com they have a nice long article on Wal-Mart entitled,

"Deliver Us from Wal-Mart?
Christians are among those sounding the alarm about the ethics of this retail giant. Are the worries justified?"

and it takes on many of the complaints against Wal-Mart from a Christian perspective. In this post, I'm going to object to just one part. The part entitled "Wage of Sin"

Wal-Mart officials say the company's full-time hourly workers average $9.68 an hour, with a new, inexperienced worker beginning at $7 to $8 per hour. Wal-Mart's average hourly wage produces an annual income of $20,134.40, which is slightly more than the federal poverty level for a family of four ($19,350). Given that many "full-time" Wal-Mart employees work 34-hour weeks, though, the resulting average annual income of $17,114.24 falls well short of that standard for a family of four....

But does this mean that all jobs (flipping burgers, stocking shelves, etc.) should pay enough to support a family of four? Not necessarily. Theologians emerging in modern economies tend to emphasize merit as the primary grounds for pay, more amenable to market realities. In Biblical Principles and Business: The Foundations, Francis A. Schaeffer disciple Udo Middelmann notes that scriptural emphases on personal effort, contribution, and merit model the primary biblical bases for just pay.

First the article does a good job showing that Wal-Mart does not in fact pay a liveable wage. In fact, let's be real, while the government rules that $19,000 is a livable wage, I dare anyone to try to make due on $1,580 a month gross. That figure itself is incredibly low.

However, then the article goes to ask if all jobs should really pay a liveable wage. Is this really a question? Is it really ok to answer, no? "You should come to work for me, but even if you work full time you still won't be able to feed, clothe or shelter yourself." I'm sorry I must be missing something.

In Europe, service sector jobs have liveable wages. They aren't wealthy, but people can afford decent housing, transportation and clothes. Maybe I'm living in a socialist utopia (or hell as my readers prefer), but CostCo pays its employees liveable wages. Costco pays starting employees at least $10 an hour, and with regular raises a full-time hourly worker can make $40,000 annually within 3½ years. Cashiers are paid $10.50 to $17.50 an hour.

One final thought, if Middelmann believes that personal effort, contribution and merit are the models for Biblical pay, does he also believe in the Jubilee and forgiveness of debts or is the responsibility for a just distribution of resources in society only on the worker?

Read the whole article and tell me what you think.