March 2: You Oppress All Your Workers

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
   to the house of Jacob their sins. 
Yet day after day they seek me
   and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
   and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
   they delight to draw near to God. 
‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
   and oppress all your workers.  

Isaiah 58:1-3

The first injustice which Isaiah targets in his broadside on Israelite worship is a basic one. He addresses those who “oppress all your workers” (v. 3).Upon first reading, it sounds as if the prophet is blasting employers, people who are in charge of managing a workforce. 

In the sixth century in which this prophecy was delivered, this critique certainly applied to those who either employed or enslaved laborers. Slave owners were guilty of overworking, beating, or abusing their slaves; property owners took advantage of the tenants who worked their fields, withholding pay and charging exorbitant fees. 

Isaiah rightly critiqued this behavior, but we certainly wouldn’t allow or condone such conditions in our own day and time, right?

Wrong! Sadly, the conditions of construction workers in Texas closely resembles the mess which Isaiah is speaking about. According to an extensive study by the University of Texas at Austin conducted with the Workers Defense Project in 2013, the construction industry in Texas, while the strongest in the country, offered jobs which “do not provide workers with safe conditions, fair pay, and access to a career path.” Texas had the highest fatality rate among construction workers. Furthermore, employees often had wages withheld; according to the study, “more than one in five workers (22%) reported being denied payment for their construction work … Fifty percent reported not being paid overtime, despite working as many as eighty hours per week.” In total, $117 million in wages are stolen from construction workers every year in the state of Texas.

Every day, those of us who live in the burgeoning cities and suburbs of Texas drive past construction sites. We benefit from the roads, shops, houses, and building which our workers construct. But are we aware of the great costs which workers suffer for the sake of a paycheck which barely covers their basic living necessities?

While these workers may not be “ours” in the sense that we issue them orders or write their checks, we do benefit from their labor. They build this nation’s infrastructure; they are a part of the fabric of our communities.

And many of them are “oppressed.” Whose interests are being served as they suffer?

Workers Defense Project concludes that the people of Texas should fight to ensure that honest pay is paid for honest work in the construction industry. We can do this by:

 — insisting on strong enforcement of existing wage and hour laws,

— rewarding employers who pay a living wage, provide medical insurance, career advancement, and retirement benefits for their workers,

— enforcing laws governing wage theft and payroll tax fraud,

— providing protections from retaliation for workers who report violations.

What other kinds of workers do you know who are denied legal protections and rights?

PRAYER: God, thank you for the men and women who build our cities, harvest our crops, and dig our fields. Each of us deserves the right to meaningful, purposeful work in a safe and humane environment. For those who labor in fear that they may lose their lives, their health, or their wages, we pray peace. Amen.

JUSTICE CHALLENGE: Find out what kind of workers protections are already in place in your city and state. For example, in 2015, the city of Dallas guaranteed a 10-minute rest break every four hours for construction workers. Does your city guarantee the same?

Make a donation to the Workers Defense Project, workersdefense.org, and find out more about their work.