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Indicting Amazon, archbishop of Canterbury slams modern capitalism as ‘reincarnation of an ancient evil’

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A diverse roster of politicians has demanded Amazon, the retail giant whose commercial aspirations seem without bounds, change the way it does business.

President Trump has repeatedly charged the company, whose owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post, with shirking tax responsibilities, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is on a quest to force Amazon and other business behemoths to bear the cost of public assistance required by their employees.

A new voice emerged this week, from a different pulpit. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, targeted Amazon in a denunciation of corporate greed and gaping inequality — themes that have become the stock in trade of the leader of the Church of England and former oil executive who has warned that the country is facing a “crisis of capitalism” fueling extremism and ethnic tensions.

His comments reflect the increasing urgency with which religious leaders have spoken on themes of economic fairness, as national governments strain to rein in companies whose operations cross borders. In 2015, Pope Francis described austerity as a “new colonialism” and denounced capitalist excess as the “dung of the devil.”

In his speech Wednesday at the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress in Manchester, England, the archbishop was only slightly less apocalyptic, and more specific.

He described the so-called gig economy, defined by temporary and independent work, as a modern manifestation of industrial-era oppression of workers.

“The gig economy’s zero-hours contract is nothing new,” Welby said. “It is simply the reincarnation of an ancient evil.”

The archbishop suggested Amazon’s business practices demonstrated the perils of lax economic rules justified in the name of flexibility and innovation.

“When vast companies like Amazon and other online traders — the new industries — can get away with paying almost nothing in tax, there is something wrong with the tax system,” he said.

He also criticized the company’s treatment of its workers, saying, “They don’t pay a real living wage, so the taxpayer must support their workers with benefits.” The accusation echoes claims made by Sanders, who said last month, “Bottom line: The taxpayers of this country should not have to subsidize employees at a company owned by Mr. Bezos, who is worth $155 billion.”

The archbishop said the damage was not just to individual workers but to the communities in which they live.

“Having leeched off the taxpayer once,” he alleged, “they don’t pay for our defense, for security, for equality, for justice, for health, for equality, for education. Then they complain of an undertrained workforce from the education they have not paid for.”

The Seattle-based business, which this month became the second $1 trillion publicly listed U.S. company, has defended itself against these sorts of assessments.

When accounts published last month showed that the tax bill for Amazon’s main United Kingdom subsidiary had fallen last year to 1.7 million pounds (about $2.2 million), despite soaring profit of 72.4 million pounds, the company said, “We pay all taxes required in the UK and every country where we operate.” The falling tax obligation owed in large part to deductions from share-based awards to staff. Meanwhile, revenue from retail sales in the U.K. is reported through a holding company in low-tax Luxembourg, where Amazon lists its regional headquarters. The practice, also employed by leading technology companies, has raised eyebrows in Britain and beyond.

Separately, the company has rebutted the claims leveled by Sanders by saying figures showing employee reliance on public benefits include temporary workers and staff who choose to work only part time. In April, the New Food Economy, a nonprofit news organization, used public records to reveal, in partnership with the Intercept, that scores of Amazon employees use public assistance to support themselves. The data indicated, for instance, that one-third of the company’s employees in Arizona use food stamps, formerly known as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“Amazon has created more than 25,000 good jobs with good pay and benefits across the country and since 2010 have invested over 9.3 billion pounds in the UK,” a spokesman said in an emailed statement to The Washington Post.

The jeremiad by the leader of the Anglican Communion amounted to a stinging indictment of Amazon. His warnings were also more forceful than those offered by British lawmakers, who have long expressed concern about tax evasion and the harm done to U.K.-based businesses but have not enlisted the searing language used by the archbishop, who couched his critique in religious terms. British politicians have also struggled to enact policy addressing the issue. 

“By the way, I better warn you — there’s quite a bit of God in this,” Welby said at the outset of his remarks. “It’s sort of my job.”

By no means, however, did he avoid politics. “The Bible is political, from one end to the other,” Welby said.

“Jesus was highly political,” he added. “He told the rich that they would face woe. . . . He spoke harsh words to leaders of the nations when they were uncaring of the needy.”

Welby’s effort to link Christian teachings to public policy is shaped by his own path to ordination, according to biographical accounts.

He resigned as treasurer of a now-defunct British oil exploration and production company, Enterprise Oil, after an evening service in 1987 reawakened thoughts of ordination that had been dormant since his undergraduate years at Cambridge, wrote Andrew Atherstone in a book on the archbishop. The visiting preacher was John McClure, senior pastor of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Newport Beach, Calif.. The Times, a British daily, observed in 2013, at the time of Welby’s enthronement in Canterbury, that McClure was “noted in California for his vocal opposition to abortion and gay marriage.”

Laden with religious imagery, the archbishop’s speech Wednesday — a celebration of the role of trade unions in seeking economic justice — was not narrowly focused on Amazon. But he used the company as the foremost example of a new sort of concentration of corporate power, characteristic of a bygone industrial age. The battle by unions to counterbalance that power was aided by the Church of England, he said, describing how bishops were involved in mediating between mine owners and mine workers fighting against the “privatized pits.”

“All of this is not mere history, nor is it long ago and far away,” the archbishop said. “Contrary to the proverb, the past is not a different country. And we still do today many of the things that were done in the past in different forms — things that diminish human dignity and treat labor as a mere resource, like capital.”

He said an economy without strict rules leads to “the weakest being given the most risk, and the strongest the most protection.” This chasm, he said, sows social instability and division, and creates “vulnerability to the populism that stirs hatred between different ethnicities and religious groups, the rise of ancient demons of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia and the rise of extremism.”

The gap between real earnings and the pay awarded to chief executives painted a dark picture of the British economy, the archbishop said. According to an annual review conducted by the High Pay Centre, top pay at businesses on the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index rose 11 percent on a median basis between 2016 and 2017, whereas average earnings increased 1.7 percent, failing to keep pace with inflation.

The solution, the archbishop said, is not charity, confessing his “dream” of government putting “church-run food banks out of business.” Rather, he said, “there must be unions in the gig economy, there must be unions in industries being automated, unions wherever workers are vulnerable.”

The speech came days after the release of a report, “Prosperity and justice: A plan for the new economy” — written by a panel of business executives, scholars, activists and church leaders, including the archbishop — recommended sweeping changes to the British economy, including an expanded role for the state in the economy.

The archbishop’s comments drew swift rebuke from Tory lawmakers, despite Welby’s observation that religious teachings were “political, but not party political.”

Philip Davies, a member of Parliament, suggested Welby “removes his dog collar and puts on a Labour rosette,” according to the right-wing Daily Express. Still, some within the Conservative Party have indicated interest in modifying the country’s tax law in line with the religious leader’s recommendations. Philip Hammond, the Conservative finance minister, said last month he was considering an “Amazon tax” to protect traditional businesses while negotiators seek an agreement on changes to international tax treaties, Sky News reported.

The archbishop’s remarks drew applause from union delegates gathered in Manchester. He enjoyed an even larger audience in May when he officiated the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

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