Thursday, 22 November 2012

Ethics and Employment

Ethics and Employment 

The Exchange of labour for goods or money is one of the oldest customs amongst humans and is also one of the most important modes of interaction among humans and group of humans be it clans, tribes, societies or nations. It is also a great equalizer since in this exchange religion, race, caste, creed and nationality never comes in the way. But that benign and simple exchange has become complex with the advent of modern means of production and the sophistication in skill requirement that has come with globalization.

While the exchange of goods for goods was not performed outside a few tribes, we all are aware how this oldest form of exchange of labour for money became a one sided equation with corporations and governments - two chief employers - becoming big and powerful and reducing employees' rights to only paying them for services. We know about sweat shops and other aspect of mass production, but we hardly pay attention to the countless other employees who along with their wages also take away health related problems which were not explicitly a part of the agreed upon exchange.

The primary reason of work is earning a livelihood. Apart from professions such as the police or the military that involve explicit threat of physical and mental harm, there is inadequate recognition of the risks faced by employees in dangerous professions and the need for adequate safety procedures and equipment for employees who exchange their labour for monetary gain without recognition or compensation for the risks to their health and life.

Motivation for the protections that could eventually be enacted as part of a legal framework of labour and work environment laws should be an ethical and humanistic one. Legalistically we can only go so far in protecting the rights of an employee. With so much social development, today it becomes pertinent to put the ethical perspective on it, at the very least as a point of debate. Even on today’s vitally important issue of climate change, it was ethical considerations that made it necessary for the developed countries to take the responsibility to cut the major share of carbon emission that was emitted by them.

A vast proportion of our population faces occupational hazards. Some die in work-site accidents, others such as those who handle chemicals like benzene die slowly over a period of time with prolonged illness including cancer. Hundreds of thousands of people acquire ailments from back pain to loss of vision to simply fatigue that saps their energy to have any meaningful life after work. There are also the mental illnesses ranging from anxiety disorders to suicidal depression that result from workplace stresses.

Employers are not compelled to reduce their profits by making provisions for improved safety. However, it can be argued that their profits can be preserved by externalizing the cost to the customers rather than transferring it to employees in the form of occupational hazards. After all, consumers should have to pay the costs of the health and environmental hazards that are incurred by the producers of goods and services.  We have heard of only big corporations like Nike and Apple who have turned blind eye to the abuses their contractors inflict on their employees. Ironically enough of these companies not only make unimaginable profits but also cater to customers from very high economic section for whom the additional cost would not hurt as much as the life time affliction those workers have to take.

What we never hear about are workers in mechanics shop who suck petrol out of tanks by mouth and in the process ingest some of the most hazardous compounds, or the petrol pump attendant inhaling petroleum fumes all day, or the workers who carry benzene in frozen form in small industries in Vapi, or the accident and materials hazards in building and road construction. Millions of workers who work in the informal sector and the road and building, neither have knowledge of the hazards of work nor are given any substantial protective equipment. They also have no patron who will raise a voice on their behalf.

How can one be so callous when it comes to these uneducated, unskilled and defenseless workers?  Is it fair to cite only the non-existent law and regulation to justify the absence of concern? If these workers are provided with the necessary safety equipment the cost will be such an insignificant part of the total cost of the projects that it will never reach the books. A hard hat costs Rs. 300, an ear muff Rs.25, a cloth dust filter Rs.50. If you have a thousand employees working on a highway or a building project, covering them all with basic safety equipment will hardly cost a few lakh rupees compared to the total cost of these projects that run upwards of hundreds of cores of rupees!

In the Surat textile market one might see a man pushing a hand cart with hundreds of kilos of yarn mounted more that 6-7 feet high for less than hundred rupees, a pittance compared to the cost of the goods being transported. What would be the cost of transporting these goods in a manner that is not so body breaking to the laborer? One wonders why we have such apathy to that miserable worker. In New Delhi few weeks back a 19 year old boy died while cleaning a sewer line due to poisonous methane gas. He could have been provided with an oxygen cylinder if the work manager had a toxic gas detector to ascertain the safety level in the drain. These are costly but then how many of such units one needs to save a life? If the manager had no legal or technical framework to guide him, was he not simply concerned as a human being?
In India we now have corporations like Infosys who have gone beyond the call of legal requirements to provide every comfort to their employees but they also do it because their customers are mostly western countries and if it does not step up to that level, it will lose its global market share. While we have giant manufacturing companies that flout every norm and have different standards of treatment for their employees on roll, contractor employees and the truck drivers who wait outside a plant for whole week with nothing but a roadside vendor to feed them, and stray dogs for company. And this happens after the fact that India has no less than a dozen labour related laws since it enacted first Factories act in 1948! But it has only about fifteen hundred factory inspectors and they cover only the formal sectors that employ less than 10 percent of the population. Despite having so much money and resources and now the easily accessible knowledge by Internet, corporations and government are still not doing much in this direction.

Because we do not see those workers at the lowest level, we have developed a blind spot for them and we have yet to understand and practice how to ethically treat another human being.

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