Have you ever thought about world poverty and wondered what you could do about it? After all, you may not personally know any truly impoverished people and you are only one person, and what difference can one person make? I would like to share with you a story about how I came to see a little more clearly the issues of fair wages and improved working conditions, and how I could make a difference.
For most of my five years living in Lae, Papua New Guinea I employed a Papua New Guinean national lady to work one or two days each week to clean my house—the local term for maid is haus meri. I can't say it was an arrangement I was entirely comfortable with, but it seemed to be the expected thing—and I liked providing some local employment—so I went along with it.
It wasn't until watching the controversial film The Help one evening with friends that I began to think more about my relationship with my haus meri and others in similar situations. It was the scene where Hilly Holbrook declined Yule May's request for a loan of $75—the difference between sending one or both of her twin sons to college. Hilly's statement floored me: “a true Christian don't give in charity to those who is well and able. Say, it's kinder to let them learn to work things out themselves.”
It reminded me of an exchange I had had with my haus meri a few weeks prior. She came to me one day and informed me that her daughter was involved in a special children’s program at church and all parents were to prepare a chicken stew. She said that she did not have enough money to buy a chicken (about $10) that week and could I? I am embarrassed to say that instead of cheerfully obliging her simple request I instead waxed eloquent about how disgusted I was that the church leaders would expect the impoverished members to provide such an expensive dish and how risky it was to serve chicken dishes given that they would not be stored appropriately and would likely sit for hours before being eaten—the average Lae day is 86 degrees Fahrenheit and no refrigerators are available at the churches. Anyway, my haus meri didn't say anything more about the chicken and neither did I.
In hindsight, after observing Hilly and Yule May's interchange I felt ashamed of my inappropriate response to my haus meri’s simple and inexpensive (for me) request. I tried ever after to be more perceptive and more Christian in my relationship with my haus meri after that, whether she needed paint or glue for her child’s school project or help with school fees when her husband was out of work.
You might be wondering how all of this relates to you, and I will now explain the link.
The bible says, “the laborer is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10:7b). It also says, “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8 NIV).
It is easy to see how the employer of a poor person can make a significant impact on at least that one person, but how does that relate to those of us residing in a developed, western country without any poor folk in our employment?
We are the end-consumers of a host of products manufactured in developing countries. It is so easy to purchase our goods at fabulously inexpensive prices from the mega chain stores without any thought for the workers, their rate of pay or their working conditions. Our habit of spending as little as possible on any given item affects more than just our hip pocket—it drives down wages and the working conditions of those who already are impoverished. The people who produce the goods that you and I consume deserve to be paid a fair wage that will meet their needs and their family’s needs. The impoverished need not suffer unnecessarily because you and I want to extend our dollar a little further to buy yet more luxury and possibly superfluous items.
You may be wondering “But what can I do about it? I am only one person amongst millions of consumers?” And of course you are right, but little by little you and I can make a difference by purchasing fair trade and ethically produced goods, and by raising awareness in our social networks and community. Like Mahatma Gandhi said you can “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
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