Ray 11-30-2012

My Word: Does morality demand a minimum wage?

By Robert J. Ray

A friend of mine likes to say, “We all agree there’s such a thing as too hot, and such a thing as too cold. The challenge is to agree on what temperature the room should be.”

But when it comes to a legally established minimum wage, not everyone agrees that there’s too high and too low. Instead, an increasing number are calling for the minimum wage to be abolished. Wages, they argue, should be based on what the market will bear.

From a purely capitalistic perspective, I find that argument appealing. The only problem is that my parents, my pastors and other influential people instilled in me the idea that all human conduct should be morally governed.

Now I’ll admit that the ancient holy writings of the world’s various religions don’t address the issue of a minimum wage. But they do show deep concern for fairness and compassion in employment. Let me cite just one example.

The Hebrew Torah states: “Pay [your employee] his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.”

Guilty of sin? Just for not paying a cash-strapped employee on the day he did the work? Such strong words certainly suggest a deep divine concern for the employee. But back to the minimum wage.

Suppose corporate profitability is good, but the job market is unbelievably bad. Suppose large numbers are willing to work 14 hours each day without a break just for the after-work privilege of scavenging in the company’s Dumpster for the food scraps thrown out from the executive dining room.

Granted the level of desperation, that’s what the market will bear. But is it moral? Especially if the company is earning good — or even unprecedented — profits.

Virtually nobody would think it moral for any employees to work such long hours for the paltry compensation described above. Likewise, virtually nobody would think it reasonable for every employee to expect the same paycheck as the CEO.

So deep down we all have some sense of too high and too low when it comes to wages. The challenge is deciding what’s fair and compassionate. Clearly, what the market will bear isn’t a dependable indicator of what’s moral.

Robert Ray, a risk-management consultant, is a member of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.