Disability, the minimum wage, and Christianity

By Bernadette Meaden
March 7, 2017

 In Matthew’s Gospel (20: 1-15) the parable of the workers in the vineyard culminates in the famous phrase, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last”. It seems extremely relevant to the current debate about whether disabled workers should be ‘allowed’ to work for less than the minimum wage.

In the parable, workers are hired at various times throughout the day . 'The last’ are the workers who are hired by the vineyard owner late in the day. They work fewer hours and in business terms may be deemed less productive. But they are paid one denarius, a day’s wage, exactly the same as those workers who are hired at the start of the day – ‘the first’.

The  workers hired late in the day are not penalised. Despite objections from some, all the workers are treated equally and receive a wage which is adequate to live on, irrespective of the work they have done.

In Symon Hill’s book ‘The Upside Down Bible’,  this parable is discussed by a group of people, and Samantha, a disabled woman, says, “I think the point Jesus is making is that to resent others receiving the same financial support, comfort, and – ultimately – respect as you, and to consider them to deserve less of these things than you, is not a loving attitude towards others”

Rather disturbingly, the idea of paying disabled workers less than the National Living Wage if they are deemed less productive has resurfaced, and this time seems to be getting a more sympathetic hearing. Rosa Monckton, whose own daughter Domenica has a learning disability, wrote an article in the Spectator, “Why people with learning disabilities should be allowed to work for less than a minimum wage”.  She then appeared on BBC Radio Five Live to further promote this view, and was supported by veteran broadcaster Libby Purves who wrote an article in The Times, “Some workers are better off on lower pay”.

The argument seems to be that ‘allowing’ someone with a learning disability to work below the minimum wage would be good for them, because employers would then be more likely to give them a job, and a job would give their lives dignity and purpose. Paying them below the minimum wage would not constitute disrespect or discrimination, because, it was argued,  they don’t understand money, and anyway don’t really need it because they are mostly living with their parents. The fact that they may be living with their parents in poverty does not seem to register with Ms. Monckton, who happens to be very wealthy.

The reality of the situation is that one in three working age disabled people are living in poverty. Their risk of poverty is one and a half times greater than for people without a disability, yet their support is being drastically cut.

There are 1.3 million people with a learning disability who are unemployed. To suggest that ‘allowing’ them to work for less than the minimum wage would help create anything like this number of suitable jobs is fanciful. And one has to ask, if so many people were employed below minimum wage, would this not undermine the whole principle of a minimum wage?

A closer reading of Monckton’s article shows that it is actually quite political, in what is said and what is not said. She defends Lord Freud and Conservative MP Philip Davies, who have both in the past argued that disabled people were, "not worth the full wage". She laments the fact that “Services are closing, and day centres barely exist any more” without in any way questioning the government cuts that have brought this situation about. Nor does she mention that the government is about to cut the benefit for many new claimants with a learning disability by almost £30 per week, to ‘incentivise’ them to get a job.

Despite running a charity which aims to help young people with learning disabilities into a job, there is no mention of the fact that, as Mencap has reported, “people with a learning disability have been sanctioned again and again for not completing required tasks which they were simply unable to do, due to their learning disability”, trapping many in “an endless cycle of poverty”. Surely, knowing the barriers to employment her daughter and others face, and having described herself as ‘a voice for disabled people’ Ms. Monckton should be very concerned about these issues? But they are not even mentioned.

At a time when disabled people face poverty, benefit cuts, disappearing support services, sanctions, and ever-increasing pressure from government to get jobs that don't exist, campaigning for them to be allowed to work for less than the minimum wage seems deeply misguided and  harmful. Either people are worthy of repsect and therefore worthy of the minimum wage, or they are not respected, considered less worthy, and worth less.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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