As an Ontarian, I have resigned myself to three more years of utter shame and disappointment in my government. I have resigned myself to terrible slogans, abhorrent commentary, and a total lack of compassion for the average person. I have not resigned myself to not being able to do anything about it. So, Ford wants Ontario to be “Open for Business,” (I vomited in my mouth a little just saying that). That means today I want to talk about what kinds of businesses deserve to be open, in particular, in regards to how they treat their employees (because let’s not forget those fabulous changes that include rolling back the minimum wage increase, sick days, and allowing for overtime to be horrendously manipulated).
I want to do this in the simplest way possible, by looking at how businesses need to avoid harming their employees, and by looking at how they can promote the good through their employees’ welfare, and to what extend they are morally required to do each, regardless of the bullshit policies of the government of the day.
Not doing Harm
So, what does not doing harm entail? Many businesses might ask, well, harm compared to what? Arguably many businesses have harmful impacts on their employees because of what the labor market “allows.” In particular, businesses who will hire employees who generally have a harder time of things due to discrimination such as immigrants, racialized folk, those with criminal records, may feel justified in their exploitation of employees because at least they are giving them a job. Places of employment that skirt policies (inadequate as they are) on the categorization of contract staff, breaks, or tips/pay, may figure that they are not as harmful as employers that put their employees in unsafe situations that may lead to death or injury. Places of employment that demand doctor’s notes, or force sick employees to work regardless may figure that they are just protecting themselves, and that the harm of working while sick is minimal enough that they are justified given the good impacts to themselves and the economy that they are productive business owners.
However, the harm of these types of policies are real, especially when they are so widespread. When they are widespread, when work is precarious, and when work is scarce, workers cannot truly consent to these sorts of policies, or to employment in general. Their consent to working in these sorts of environments is coerced by the much worse circumstances of being non-employed and therefore unable to pay for healthcare or the necessaries of life or being homeless. This is an issue of justice, because these issues predominantly affect those who are already marginalized and those whose families are unable to support them through periods of non-income (e.g. racialized folks, LGTB folks with estranged families, individuals whose families may be abusive). Furthermore, the fact that you are only as bad as you can get away with, or not as bad as someone else, has never been an argument in favour of your own morality.
The harms that employees might experience from not having adequate pay, sick leave, breaks, etc. may result in: conditions that make it hard to focus and therefore might expose them to safety risks, conditions that may worsen their mental health, conditions that may worsen their physical health, conditions that may impact their social relationships and hence the others. These things are so interconnected and when we spend even part-time hours somewhere, say 20 hours a week, or when we are overworked in full-time jobs, working up to 70 or 80 hours a week and everywhere in between, work becomes a big part of our lives and therefore has an oversized impact on the quality of our lives. When work becomes the main thing which allows us to live- which is true in a capitalist system, even with current safety nets (since they are woefully inadequate), work literally determines if our lives will or will not go well.
So, aside from preventing harm, if we are to be good moral agents, or good moral employers in this case, we must also promote good. Sometimes these things can be intertwined, like having proactive mental health care, or paying a living wage. However, it can also include things like making sure that there is an ethical culture that prevents employee wrongdoing, such as one which makes sexual harassment easy to report and in which violators of these codes are managed appropriately. Promoting good can also look like a meaningful mission statement where the business itself does good in the world and for the world, not just for those it works for.
In a world that works on money, these unemployed-philosopher dreams of mine may simply be too lofty to substantiate into reality. But I am tired of seeing my friends exploited in clearly unethical ways, of seeing them dragged into the muck of mental health crises from overwork, underpay, and harassment at work. We wonder why the world is going to shit, and perhaps we should take a little closer look at who runs the world that got us there, because I don’t think its governments, not anymore.