What’s hidden in a dollar bill? It really is amazing how much a little dollar holds inside and behind it, out of sight. Even in your wallet, a dollar holds untold secrets. Think about stacking up 100 pennies, balancing a dollar bill on top, and then looking down from above. You wouldn’t be able to see all the pennies because they’re hidden behind the dollar.
If I told you that your money hides a lot of evil within it, you’d probably think I was about to preach a sermon on consumerism. And you might be right, at least partly. After all, most of us have heard throughout our lives that "money is the root of all evil." And we’re taught to get more money so we can buy all those things we want. (Well, maybe we don’t really want them; we’ve just been convinced we do by all the advertising and marketing whose purpose is exactly that.) And, guess who pays for that marketing? You guessed it ... you are paying good money for someone to convince you that you need to buy their product. What?
But that’s not all. When we buy a product, we’re buying (and therefore supporting) everything contained in that product. We can’t see everything that goes into that product. Money, the common world-wide medium of exchange, effectively hides what goes into every product. Producers and retailers are happy to have it that way.
A few examples will be helpful. Does the label on your can of coffee say that it was produced using banned pesticides? Does the packaging on that shirt tell you that every part of the shirt was made in a secret sweat shop where laborers (even children) work for pittance wages in dangerous conditions, and that even the retailer supports that in order to keep the price low? Perhaps that special someone you gave Valentine’s Day roses to would prefer not to know that they contained large portions of slave and child labor, jet fuel (for transporting them here from Columbia and other South American countries), illegal pesticides, and tons of plastics to cover Andean mountainsides to create "greenhouses" in which the roses are grown. Isn’t it amazing how all of this is hidden in the price we pay? Happily for the big corporations, when all these facts are hidden in the price, we are prevented from suffering the inconveniences of conscience such truths might bring.
Direct costs of production (labor, materials, etc.) consume two-thirds of the revenue of the largest U.S. corporations (the "Standard & Poor’s 500), which effectively control the global economy. Direct costs are seven times larger than profits, so when executives want to increase profits (which is always), they put great pressure on costs; after all, a small five percent cut in costs produces a 35 percent increase in profits!
Workers around the world are constantly faced by employers who enforce oppressive wages, policies, and working conditions in order to increase profits. Globalization results in the commodification of workers, promoting a careless and callous attitude toward them. A garment worker in Bangladesh is paid less than three dollars a day; if they complain, there’s always another worker in line. As production jobs move overseas from the U.S. to take advantage of oppressive wages, chronic unemployment increases here, keeping wages and benefits low (except for the executives, of course), and profits high. Such blatant and oppressive injustice is part of the price you pay for what you buy. We need to join in holding producers and retailers accountable for practices that support worker injustice.
"You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns. You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets." Deuteronomy 24:14-15.
At the same time, we need to support workers, here and around the world (after all, most all of us either are, or have been, workers.) All labor issues everywhere are interconnected. When one worker suffers anywhere, all workers suffer everywhere. That’s why labor organization is more important today than it has been in nearly 100 years. All people need to promote a global brother/sisterhood of workers in new forms. Vermont’s workers must be in solidarity with workers around the world. Even as workers engage in actions to improve their lot (such as the transit workers’ strike in Burlington), they must reach out in new ways that pull others up with them. How about if, as part of their strike, Burlington’s transit workers "adopt" bus drivers in Singapore, who are woefully underpaid. Only together can the world be transformed.
"There’s no such thing as the "voiceless." There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard." Arundhati Roy
Rev. John Ransom is a non-denominational minister of peace and justice. He is the author of a prayer book and an upcoming book on global social justice, to be published in the Spring. He lives in Readsboro with his spouse Michael, and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website, www.EmergingSpirit.info.