Introduction: The Immorality of Plantation Capitalism
“The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: ‘It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?’ declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 3:14-15 NIV).
Over 20 years ago, as a freshly minted lawyer at what was then known as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, I was fortunate to work on a landmark case under the mentorship of Julie Su, representing 80 Thai workers who had been enslaved behind barbed wire in an El Monte sweatshop and forced to sew garments for some of the nation’s leading manufacturers and retailers.
Along with their Latinx counterparts who worked at a nearby front shop sewing clothing for the same companies, the Thai workers demonstrated tremendous courage in demanding that these corporations be held accountable for profiting from the unlawful exploitation of the workers. By joining together, organizing, bringing legal action, and speaking truth to power in their own voices, these Thai and Latinx workers won over $4 million and raised public consciousness about the reality of modern day sweatshops in the United States.
It is both tragic and a moral outrage that millions of workers in the United States labor and toil in 21st century slave-like conditions. The book of James proclaims: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4). Yet, in my many years of working with garment, car wash, taxi, restaurant, and other workers in low-wage industries, I have witnessed firsthand how workers regularly toil 12-16 hours a day, six to seven days a week, for subminimum wages.
It is both tragic and a moral outrage that millions of workers in the United States labor and toil in 21st century slave-like conditions.
The failure of employers to pay workers their full wages owed is prevalent and systemic. The most common forms of wage theft include violations of minimum wage, overtime, meal and rest break laws, and failure to pay workers for all hours worked.
It is estimated that each year, on a national level, workers are robbed of over $15 billion due to minimum wage violations alone. Employers often flout state and federal wage and hour laws and treat any potential fines and penalties as the cost of doing business. Moreover, there are numerous workers, including Black, LGBTQ, and formerly incarcerated workers, who are discriminated against and excluded from workplaces by employers who refuse to hire them. Discrimination in hiring can thereby be considered another form of wage theft.
The economic order in the United States that creates these dismal labor and workplace conditions — plantation capitalism — is antithetical to Christian teachings. A term coined by the Reverend Dr. James M. Lawson Jr., “plantation capitalism” refers to the United States’ immoral and unjust economic system that is built on the legacy of slavery and grounded in the nexus of racism and economic exploitation. Premised upon the dehumanization and commodification of workers — in particular workers of color, immigrants, and women — plantation capitalism glorifies greed and profit for a few while causing poverty, hardship, and suffering for the many who toil and labor.
Plantation capitalism glorifies greed and profit for a few while causing poverty, hardship, and suffering for the many who toil and labor.
In this context of plantation capitalism, there are nearly 140 million poor and low income people in the United States. Exacerbating this crisis is the phenomenon of increasing income inequality. According to a 2018 Economic Policy Institute report, between 2009 and 2015, the incomes of the top 1 percent grew faster than the incomes of the bottom 99 percent in nearly every state in the country. The top 1 percent received more than 26 times the income of the bottom 99 percent.
Reflecting the intersection of race and class in plantation capitalism, people of color disproportionately live in poverty. According to demographic analysis prepared by Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, people of color experience poverty at significantly higher rates than white people:
Whites: 11 percent
African American or Blacks: 27 percent
Native Americans and Alaska Natives: 25 percent
Latinx: 24 percent
Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders: 18 percent
Asian Americans: 13 percent
Contrary to the model minority myth, the ethnic groups with the highest poverty rates in the United States are Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI). Marshallese have a poverty rate of 41 percent, Burmese 38 percent, and Bhutanese 34 percent. Other AANHPI ethnic groups that experience poverty at significant rates include: Bangladeshi, 24 percent; Tongan, 22 percent; Malaysian, 21 percent; Samoan, 20 percent; Cambodian, 20 percent; Laotian, 17 percent; and Pakistani, 17 percent.
People of color also are disproportionately subjected to economic exploitation.
People of color also are disproportionately subjected to economic exploitation. A recent Economic Policy Institute report found that workers of color are paid poverty wages at much higher rates than white workers:
White workers: 8.6 percent
Latinx workers: 19.2 percent
African American or Black workers: 14.3 percent
Asian or Pacific Islander workers: 10.9 percent
As a consequence of this interlocking system of economic exploitation encompassing racism, poverty wages, and wage theft, millions of workers in the United States who work full-time and year-round — especially workers of color — are nonetheless living in poverty and barely surviving. Many workers are also locked out of the labor market due to discrimination and caught in a vortex of unemployment and underemployment.
As Asian American Christians, we must practice and live out our faith by opposing plantation capitalism and its systems, policies, and practices that, as discussed in Isaiah 3:15, crush our people and grind “the faces of the poor”. It is a moral imperative that we engage in nonviolent struggle against worker exploitation and economic inequality and instead promote policies that assist the poor and create humane, fair, and just working conditions for all.
It is a moral imperative that we promote policies that assist the poor and create humane, fair, and just working conditions for all.
II. Dismantling Plantation Capitalism: The Importance of Building Collective Worker Power
“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” ( James 2:5-7)
At the core of plantation capitalism is an unequal power dynamic between employers and workers. This is exacerbated when workers are particularly vulnerable to discrimination — for example due to their immigration status, race, ethnicity, gender identity, LGBTQ status, limited English proficiency, and other factors. Employers often will take advantage of these vulnerabilities and further exploit workers, counting on workers being too afraid to speak out against this mistreatment.
Given that plantation capitalism contradicts Jesus’ teachings, what can be done to ensure that workers are treated with dignity and respect? One critical key is to equalize this unequal power dynamic and to build the collective power of workers so that workers can organize for fair and just working conditions that enable them to earn living wages and support themselves and their families with the fundamental necessities of life.
Despite a decline in union membership in recent years, the labor movement and labor unions continue to be most effective at building to scale the collective worker power necessary to win equitable workplace conditions and to generate social mobility for workers. The positive impact for workers who belong to a union is indisputable. By enabling workers to collectively bargain with employers, unions typically secure higher wages, better benefits such as health care, and job protections for workers.
By enabling workers to collectively bargain with employers, unions typically secure higher wages, better benefits such as health care, and job protections for workers.
According to a recent Center for American Progress (CAP) report, union members have annual earnings that are between 20 to 50 percent higher than non-union members. Union members also possess twice as much wealth as non-union members. Notably, union membership has an especially dramatic impact in improving working conditions and social mobility for workers of color. While white people typically have significantly more wealth than people of color, union membership helps to narrow this racial wealth gap. Union members of color possess nearly five times (485.1 percent) more wealth than non-union workers of color.
Unions, however, continue to be under attack by corporations and conservative elements, with union membership declining from approximately one-third of the U.S. workforce in 1954 to just over 10 percent in 2017. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Janus case further threatens to undermine public sector union membership. A disturbing consequence of the weakening of labor unions is increased inequality with workers being shut out of the economic gains that their labor produces.
A disturbing consequence of the weakening of labor unions is increased inequality with workers being shut out of the economic gains that their labor produces.
Thus, an important strategy for countering plantation capitalism to secure fair and just working conditions for workers — in particular workers of color — is to support labor unions and other entities that build collective worker power. By supporting labor unions and worker centers, people of faith can support workers in organizing for a moral economy that values and dignifies labor.
III. Faith in Action: Creating a Moral and Just Economic Order
“In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (James 2:17-18).
What can people of faith do to dismantle plantation capitalism and to create a just and moral economy that values and treats all workers with dignity and respect? What can we do to ensure that workers earn living wages that allow them to support their families and to secure the basic necessities of life such as affordable housing, quality health care and education, and freedom from discrimination?
The Gospel calls on us to practice our faith through good works and deeds. Here are some ways that we can draw upon our deepest moral and religious convictions and engage in nonviolent action to support the right of workers to be treated with dignity and respect:
The Gospel calls on us to practice our faith through good works and deeds.
Support the right of workers to organize and to join labor unions. Workers often face retaliation when they attempt to organize their workplaces and to join a union. Faith support for workers seeking to organize and unionize can play a pivotal role in the outcome. Ways to demonstrate support may include signing petitions, making phone calls, attending vigils and rallies, joining a delegation, walking a picket line, honoring a boycott or strike, and other actions. To learn more about labor unions, a key resource is the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), a national organization with local chapters that serves as a bridge between AANHPIs and the broader labor community (apalanet.org).
Support worker organizing campaigns. Faith community support also is critical when workers engage in strategic organizing campaigns for better working conditions. For example, workers at a local business like a car wash may organize against wage theft and for their right to be paid minimum wage and overtime. Or, Black workers may organize against racial discrimination and for equal opportunity to be hired for good construction jobs. The active involvement of people of faith can be very affirming and healing for workers as a form of ministry, especially when workers face retaliation, while also having a positive impact on the likelihood of success for the campaign.
Build strong, inclusive, diverse, and intersectional relationships and coalition. In order to organize for an equitable economic structure that honors and respects workers, it is a moral and strategic imperative that we form respectful, trusting coalitions with diverse community partners and allies, especially those who are most directly impacted. As people of faith, the means by which we organize is as important as achieving our goals. Consistent with the Gospel, it is important that we enter into respectful relationships with people of diverse backgrounds — coming together across race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, immigration status, religion, geography, and other factors — and work together toward our shared goals. By building strong, diverse, and inclusive coalitions, we also can forge the necessary collective power to challenge inequities and achieve systemic change.
Get involved with interfaith organizations that support workers. There are innovative and effective interfaith organizations that work in diverse, intersectional coalitions to support workers organizing for economic justice. A couple of organizations that are at the forefront of organizing and mobilizing interfaith communities are: Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (cluejustice.org), which was co-founded by the Rev. Dr. James M. Lawson Jr., and Interfaith Worker Justice (iwj.org). In addition, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is an inclusive interfaith campaign that seeks to challenge the interlocking evils of poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the nation’s distorted moral narrative. Information is available at: poorpeoplescampaign.org.
As people of faith, we can and should bear moral witness to the struggles of workers and walk alongside them in seeking to carry out God’s will here on earth as it is in heaven. With our faith-rootedness, we can together seek to dismantle plantation capitalism through nonviolent struggle and instead establish a moral and just economic system that values the inherent humanity of every worker.
Betty Hung is a long-time social justice lawyer with a focus on law and organizing. For over 20 years, she has worked on myriad issues such as workers rights, racial justice, immigrant rights, education equity, and gender justice. Betty is the Staff Director at the UCLA Labor Center and previous worked at a national civil rights organization. Betty is a member of New City Church of Los Angeles and serves on the boards of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), the CLEAN Carwash Worker Center, and Economic Roundtable.