Archive for the ‘rights’ Category
When should a corporation play the role of legal and moral enforcer? And when does a corporation start to take on the obligations — and limits — of a government?
Consider Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system. When it was released last year, the new OS has met with mixed reviews. But at least one review, by PC World, noticed something interesting about SkyDrive, the new cloud storage service integrated into Windows 8:
“Microsoft restricts the types of files you may upload: Illegally copied commercial content is prohibited, and so are files that contain nudity or excessive violence.”
Just what does that mean? Let’s focus here just on the nudity part.
During an online Q&A session this summer, two Microsoft engineers clarified. Apparently SkyDrive’s rules mean that you are free to store your nudie pics, as long as they don’t include any child pornography. But if you use SkyDrive’s file-sharing feature, the limits are more strict: no nudity at all. So, those topless beach photos from your Mexican vacation are OK to store, but not to share. Is Microsoft checking to make sure stored erotica doesn’t include children? That’s not clear.
This raises interesting problems related to the amount of control that corporations have over everyday activities like storing computer files, especially when — as is the case with many tech companies — their services become part of the infrastructure of our lives, woven into everything we do.
Such power isn’t going to go away. But it does raise questions about the ethical standards that apply to corporate behaviour. If corporations have the kinds of power that were once reserved for states, do they then have the same kinds of obligations? Do the same standards for surveillance and search-and-seizure apply to Microsoft and its users as apply to a government and its citizens?
Of course, if Microsoft users don’t like it, they are in principle free to opt out. There are alternatives to SkyDrive — including Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud, and many others. But Microsoft’s market penetration in terms of operating systems means that for many users (especially ones who aren’t technically sophisticated) SkyDrive is the default. And default options matter; there’s a vast psychological literature on how often people simply go with the default, even when an alternative is available that would advance their interests better.
With great market power comes great responsibility.
Workers in Bangladesh will be the beneficiaries of yet another massive effort to improve their lot. Will it work? And will it mean anything for workers in countries other than Bangladesh? It’s a welcome move, but it also raises questions.
According to a press release, an alliance of leading North American retailers has committed to a new plan, The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, intended to “dramatically improving factory safety conditions in Bangladesh.” The coalition includes Walmart, Target, Canadian Tire, Gap, Hudson’s Bay Company, and a dozen other major retailers. That means, according to the press release, that the Initiative covers the “overwhelming majority of North American apparel imports.”
This new Initiative should not be confused with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a labour-led agreement that was announced in May, less than a month after the collapsed the collapse of Bangladesh’s 8-story Rana Plaza collapse, a tragedy that eventually claimed 1,129 victims. Signatories to that Accord included Europe’s two biggest clothing retailers, as well as Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, and Canada’s Loblaw, but there were notable abstentions. Walmart, for instance, was criticized for declining to sign on.
The new Initiative “sets aggressive timelines and accountability for inspections, training and worker empowerment.” Of particular note: “Within one year, 100 percent of all factories that conduct work with an alliance member will be inspected,” and members of the alliance have committed to refusing to do business with any factory deemed unsafe. And, in a worthy commitment to transparency, the alliance will make semi-annual progress reports public.
There is, of course, plenty of room for skepticism. Some will see this new Initiative as a PR move, albeit a rather expensive one. Members of the alliance have already committed $42 million, though of course that number has to be put into context by comparing it to the vast profit the alliance members derive from doing business in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi garment industry is a $19 billion-a-year industry. (Quick math: that means the size of the Alliance budget amounts to roughtly 0.2% of the size of the industry. That’s not necessarily the most relevant comparison, but it gives you a sense of scale.)
Another source of skepticism, for some, is that this is an entirely business-driven initiative, unlike the May Accord, which was driven by labour and which will be guided by a Board that includes representatives of both corporate and labour interests. The Board of the new Initiative is perhaps less clearly unbiased: the 9-member board will consist of “four retailers, four stakeholders who provide specific expertise, and an independent board chair.” Interestingly, however, the Initiative does include specific provisions not just to look after workers, in the paternalistic sense, but to empower them: it calls for members to support the election of Worker Participation Committees at all factories, along with the provision of anonymous worker hotlines to be administered by a third party.
I continue to wonder and worry that both the new The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative and May’s Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh represent a kind of Bangladeshi exceptionalism. Why are major retailers joining together in now two big agreements to improve conditions in Bangladesh, but in Bangladesh alone? Admittedly, Bangladesh is important — as far as the garment industry goes, it is second only to China among countries exporting Western brands. But still: it worries me that a factory collapse that could have happened in an number of developing nations has apparently drawn attention only to the fate of garment workers in one, admittedly needy, nation.
Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, regarding the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods. Because it’s about food, and because it’s taking place in California — a place where they take their food and their plebiscites seriously — the effort has been highly-publicized and highly politicized. California is both an important agricultural state and the state with perhaps the highest concentration of believers in the “Natural is Good” mantra. So it’s not surprising that the fight over Prop 37 is raising some dust.
One of the favourite slogans of the pro-Prop37 forces is the claim that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating. This is a strong claim. Using the language of rights is a way of making the strongest possible kind of ethical claim, a way to draw a line in the topsoil, as it were. To say that someone has a right to something is quite different from saying merely that “it would be good if we did this” or “good people and good companies do this sort of thing.” It expresses a kind of moral absolute.
Indeed, if it were true that consumers really have a strong right to know what they’re eating — including, presumably, a right to know the genetic makeup of their food — then Prop 37 ought to be redundant. Any corporate citizen worth its salt makes every effort to respect its customers’ rights. When there is a right to some piece of information, institutions and methods of production need to be designed and implemented to respect and promote such rights.
But the idea that we have a right to know what we’re eating can’t stand up to scrutiny, at least not if we define “what we’re eating” to include every aspect of the food’s makeup and indeed its history. Counter examples are easy. If you’re sipping a Coke, do you have a right to know the exact proportion of various ingredients? No, that’s a secret. If you’re eating in a restaurant, do you have the right to know the Chef’s method for searing your tuna steak so perfectly? Of course not — though you of course have the right to eat elsewhere.
Or consider this example: do you have the right to know whether the banana you’re eating was picked on a Thursday? (Imagine that Thursday is a holy day in your religion.) No, because recording and tracking day-of-harvest for boatloads of bananas would be difficult and expensive. Yes, the fact might matter to you a lot, but there are other ways of accommodating your interest in that information, short of attributing a morally weighty (let alone legally binding) right to it. Taken seriously, the right to know your food’s history even implies that the racist or sexist or homophobe has a right to personal information about the people who handled their food along the supply chain. And yet surely there is no such right to information that let’s someone act out their prejudices.
The point is that people might want to know all sorts of information about the food their eating. And that’s fine. But saying they have a right to it is a different thing altogether. Rights protect important interests. And there simply is no compelling evidence that anyone needs to know that genetic makeup of their food, or that a right to such information would protect any important consumer interest.
For more, see my previous entry on the “Right to Know What I’m Eating” over at my Food Ethics Blog.
Samsung and Apple recently shared the spotlight as the parties to a billion dollar intellectual property lawsuit. Now, Samsung has replaced Apple as the tech company in a different spotlight — the spotlight, that is, consisting of accusations of mistreating Chinese workers. A report by the New York-based NGO China Labor Watch says that Chinese factories making devices and components for Samsung are guilty of a range of abuses. Employees working more than 100 hours of overtime in a month. Children under 16 working in factories. Failure to provide safety clothing where appropriate. And on and on.
A few key points are worth noting.
First, a note about overtime. It’s worth pointing out that China Labor Watch criticizes overtime — voluntary overtime — as if overtime were a bad thing. But at the Foxconn factories supplying Apple, at least, the biggest complaint of workers was that they wanted more overtime. If anything similar is the case at the Samsung factories, this implies that stricter limits on overtime would indeed be a bad thing, at least from the workers’ point of view.
Of course, wanting more overtime doesn’t prove that things are great at the factories; it just proves that workers want more money than they make during a regular workday. After all, if you pay people poorly enough, everyone will literally beg you for more overtime.
But then, it’s also worth remembering that “overtime” is a social construct. The amount of hours someone should work in a week is a matter of convention, and in North America and Europe we established the conventional 35 or 40 hour work week once we could afford to do so. Not everyone is yet so lucky.
Second, it is a mistake to lump all the accusations in together, as if they were all of a kind. They aren’t. Some of the complaints have to do with things that are susceptible to tradeoffs. Long hours, for example, may be acceptable if workers believe the loss of leisure time is justified by the extra income. It’s arguably a matter of rational calculations for each worker.
Other complaints, in comparison, have to do with rights, and rights are traditionally regarded as not being readily subjected to such calculations. We don’t allow voters in a democracy to literally sell their votes, for example. We put such a high value on the right to democratic participation that we forbid voters from making tradeoffs of this kind, from weighing how much they value their ability to vote against how much they value some quantity of money. Now, back to Samsung. One of the issues raised by China Labor Watch is that workers in the factories lacked a mechanism by which to lodge complaints. The existence of such a mechanism in the workplace might arguably be said to be a right. Such being the case, Samsung cannot simply argue that its workers are making a rational tradeoff here. Rights, as the saying goes, are trumps.
Finally, a note about accountability. As law professor Stan Abrams points out, one of the key factors differentiating the Apple and Samsung cases is that Samsung owns or controls many of the factories in question. Apple, on the other hand, was (and is) criticized for conditions at factories owned by its subcontractor. But since it didn’t run those factories it could plausibly deny knowledge and perhaps responsibility. Samsung, on the other hand, has no such refuge. When you own or control a factory, you can’t plausible, ethically, deny that you know how workers are being treated.
That’s not to say that the Apple and Samsung cases are categorically different. In both cases, the companies in question need to take a hard look at how their products are being made. But consumers and investors need to take a hard look, too. And that means not just casting a spotlight, but doing the hard mental work of thinking through some complicated questions of right and wrong.
When employers terminate an employee as punishment for wrongdoing, it is important that they proceed in a way that pays attention to fundamental principles of justice. The firing can’t be arbitrary, or be carried out without sufficient evidence. The firing should be a penalty proportionate to the wrong committed — that is, the punishment should fit the ‘crime.’ And the employee to be terminated ought to be allowed a reasonable opportunity to respond to the accusations. These are fundamental ethical principles, ones that happen also to be entrenched to a greater or lesser degree in HR law.
In that regard, here’s an interesting story about a civil servant in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, who successfully appealed her dismissal, on the grounds that the right process hadn’t been followed. More specifically, she’s a city employee who stands accused of doing work on behalf of other employers on city time. Interestingly, the court that overturned City Council’s decision to fire her didn’t disagree with Council’s reasons — the court merely disagreed with the process that was followed. In particular, the employee hadn’t been given enough time to prepare for the Council meeting at which her case was considered and a guilty ‘verdict’ issued.
The key point to understand, though, isn’t about the legal standard the court applied. Or at least, the legal standard isn’t the only interesting part. Because the legal standard applied — one according to which someone accused of something deserves a decent amount of time to prepare a defence — isn’t just a legal principle, but also a fundamental principle of justice. It’s a moral principle that is embedded in our legal system, and that ought to have been embedded in Connellsville’s HR policies. In other words, the city’s policies ought to have stipulated that an employee accused of wrongdoing be given sufficient time to mount a defence before being asked to stand ‘trial.’
Last Friday I spoke at the annual Client Conference for the big Toronto HR law firm, Hicks Morley. The talk was entitled “The Ethical Core of HR Law.” The basic idea was one that is nicely illustrated by the story cited above. Laws exist to protect rights and to promote human wellbeing. Organizational policies are in a sense a kind of private law, albeit a kind of law designed to support achievement of organizational goals. Thus every policy an organization puts in place ought to be thought of as grounded in one or more ethical principles or values. Organizations ought to give as much thought to the ethical content of their policies as they do to promulgating and enforcing them.
Contracts are an essential part of modern business. Contracts make business partners more reliable, fostering trust beyond the limits of basic human trustworthiness and a firm handshake. Indeed, one of the main ways in which all modern economies treat corporations as ‘persons‘ under the law is evidenced by the fact that corporations can sign, and be bound by the terms of, contracts. Contracts provide uniformity and security. Contracts can also be contentious, hence the evolution of an entire branch of law known as Contract Law.
Sometimes, one party or another comes to regret signing a contract, especially long-term contracts. Two such cases have been in the news recently.
One story involves consumers regretting signing contracts, in particular mobile phone contracts. Here in Ontario, a bill has been introduced that attempts to improve mobile phone contracts for consumers, including making it easier for consumers to end contracts without massive penalties. It turns out that consumers like the low, low phone prices made possible by long-term contracts, but aren’t so fond of actually paying the full price of such contracts. And most people, I suspect, sympathize with the consumer here rather than with the phone companies who want to see their contracts honoured.
The other story about contracts flips that one on its head. It’s a story about frequent fliers who bought tickets — essentially, signed contracts — giving them unlimited first-class flying on American Airlines. But this time, it’s not the consumer who came to regret the deal, but rather the company. You see, American, when they sold these tickets years back (for prices in the quarter-million dollar range) didn’t foresee the ways in which some customers would use — and perhaps abuse — the privileges those tickets embodied. A handful of super-frequent fliers are using their lifetime tickets so intensively that they’re each costing the airline something like a million dollars a year.
Of course, this story is unlikely to generate much sympathy. Most people dislike big corporations like American Airlines, and almost everyone has reason to gripe about airlines in particular. Tough luck, suckers! And after all, a big corporation like that can afford it, right? Well, no, as it turns out profit margins in that industry are vanishingly thin, and even negative in some years. (In related news American recently asked a bankruptcy court to nullify its contracts with various labour unions.)
The more general question here has to do with whether we should protect people (and companies) from the results of their poor decisions. One set of reasons has to do with protecting the interests of persons: as a society, we have duty to protect each other at least to some extent. And in the commercial domain the consequences of certain choices can be unclear. This is a reason for laws encouraging clarity of contract, if not provisions for voiding them altogether.
Another set of reasons has to do with the social benefits, both of contracts and of occasionally voiding them. Contracts are designed to reduce the risk of doing business; but the act of signing a contract also involves taking a risk, namely the risk that things will turn out differently than you had expected, and that holding up your end of the bargain will end up being disadvantageous. And we want people, and companies, to take those kinds of risks; without them, commerce (and hence our standard of living) would return to stone age levels. So we may in some situations want to provide safety nets to make such risk-taking reasonable. Whether we have the moral imagination needed to see the full range of costs and benefits to the full range of relevant parties is another matter.
Corporate personhood is one of the most badly misunderstood concepts in discussions of corporate behaviour and responsibility. It is also one of the most essential tools for promoting human wellbeing and protecting individual human liberties.
People get angry — understandably and often justifiably angry — when they see instances in which corporations have too much power. But the response, the way such anger is directed, is not always constructive. Indeed, sometimes it’s downright counterproductive.
Witness, for example, the recent move in the US to propose a “People’s Rights Amendment.” (It’s a project of citizens group “Free Speech for People”, and the bill was introduced in congress by Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.) This is a hail-Mary attempt to amend the US Constitution, largely in response to the US Supreme Courth’s controversial Citizens United decision. That decision, rooted in constitutional arguments about free speech, removed certain limits on corporate political donations. Like many people, I worry about the effects of that decision; but I worry even more about the potentially disastrous effects of the proposed remedies.
Now, a lot of people believe that the US Supreme Court, in the Citizens United decision, invented the notion of Corporate Personhood. That belief is both false and wildly US-centric. But aside from getting history wrong, this belief has resulted in a backlash that has included some wrong-headed proposals for shifting the balance of power back to The People. And the People’s Rights Amendment is one of those.
Here are the 3 sections of the proposed “People’s Rights Amendment”:
Section 1. We the people who ordain and establish this Constitution intend the rights protected by this Constitution to be the rights of natural persons.
Section 2. People, person, or persons as used in this Constitution does not include corporations, limited liability companies or other corporate entities established by the laws of any state, the United States, or any foreign state, and such corporate entities are subject to such regulation as the people, through their elected state and federal representatives, deem reasonable and are otherwise consistent with the powers of Congress and the States under this Constitution.
Section 3. Nothing contained herein shall be construed to limit the people’s rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, and such other rights of the people, which rights are inalienable.
There are two problems here, and they are rooted in Sections 2 and 3 respectively.
Note that Section 2 says that incorporated entities don’t get constitutional rights at all. So that means, for example, no 4th Amendment limits on search and seizure of corporate property. So, under this proposed Amendment, no one’s investments — not your stock portfolio, not your RRSP, not your pension plan — is immune from arbitrary seizure by the state. It also means that a corporation would have no right to due process when charged with a crime. The implications for shareholders and employees, here, are potentially disastrous. Under the People’s Rights Amendment, any corporation you’ve invested in, or where you work, could effectively be seized and shut down without cause, without trial, without explanation. This surely limits corporate power, but at enormous cost — namely an enormous increase in the power of the state. Not the people; the state.
I should also add that this Amendment seems also to apply also to unions, nonprofits, and churches. None of them would, under the People’s Rights Amendment, retain these rights against the state, and all would be enormously vulnerable.
But all of that only matters if Section 3 doesn’t exist, because Section 3, if taken seriously, guts the whole thing. Section 3 reasserts that people, human beings, do have rights, and that nothing in Section 2 can be construed as limiting those rights. So as the owner of a corporation, or as a shareholder in one, Section 3 assures you that your property — including presumably the property of the corporation you own, or the property of the corporation from which you derive dividends — cannot be subject to unreasonable search and seizure, and cannot be confiscated without due process. Whew!
The point here is that people, real flesh-and-blood people, rely on business corporations and other ‘corporate entities’ in a huge number of ways. They are how we make our living. They are the instruments of our collective success. Where the power of those instruments needs to be limited, as it surely sometimes does, it cannot be done by pulling the rug out from under individual, human liberties. And so if corporate power is to be reined in, it will have to be done through a mechanism considerably less clumsy than the People’s Rights Amendment.
If there’s serious academic topic and social issue that might generate more stupid jokes than Business Ethics, it’s Legal Ethics. Which is too bad, since it’s an important topic. And that’s the topic raised by a recent story in the Boston Globe about lawyers who specialize in defending drivers accused of drunk driving.
Anyone with a broad interest in business ethics is almost inevitably going to run into questions of legal ethics, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that many corporations employ lawyers, and so businesses have to know about the ethical constraints on these very special employees. The other reason is that lawyers who don’t work for big companies are, themselves, either partners in law firms or owners of their own small businesses. And whether you work for a business or run one, questions arise regarding the intersection of, and perhaps conflict between, legal ethics on one hand and business ethics on the other.
One of the crucial ethical question that must inevitably arise for lawyers is this: what are a lawyer’s social responsibilities? In other words, what are a lawyer’s obligations to the society she lives in, while she goes about trying to ply her trade and make a living?
There’s a very strong argument to be made to the effect that the key way in which lawyers serve society — their key social responsibility — is by serving their clients well. Ours is an adversarial legal system, under which all parties to a dispute are entitled to legal representation. A key presumption of the system is that we are most likely to arrive at a just outcome if all parties to the dispute are represented by lawyers who vigourously pursue their clients’ interest. So the morality of whole system effectively stands or falls with the practice of zealous advocacy. We can never be 100% confident in the outcome of a trial, perhaps, but at least we know each side had its bulldog.
Now, it’s widely recognized among legal scholars that there are limits to zealous advocacy. Lawyers are forbidden from directly breaking the law in attempting to help their clients, and from derailing the court’s processes by, for example, suborning perjury or destroying evidence. But beyond that, lawyers are entitled — indeed, required — to do their damnedest.
Yale legal scholar Robert W Gordon wrote a nice piece a few years back called “Why Lawyers Can’t Just Be Hired Guns.” Gordon’s basic argument is essentially that lawyers play too important a role in modern society for them to think of themselves as solely beholden to their clients. In particular, Gordon argues that a lawyer’s right to engage in zealous advocacy only makes sense to the extent that lawyers also help support the system within which such advocacy ends up being constructive:
…lawyers’ work on behalf of clients positively requires—both for its justification and its successful functioning for the benefit of those same clients in the long run—that lawyers also help maintain and refresh the public sphere, the infrastructure of law and cultural convention that constitutes the cement of society.
(You’ll find Goron’s piece in a very good book called Ethics in Practice: Lawyers’ Roles, Responsibilities, and Regulation, edited by Deborah L. Rhode.)
It’s worth noting that Gordon’s argument about social responsibility is essentially an argument about the limits that apply to the fundamental moral obligation that lawyers have to faithfully play their role in the larger legal system. And it’s equally worth noting that that obligation cannot be described without reference to that system, and to the role we want lawyers to play within it.
There’s a general lesson, here. We shouldn’t think of ethics strictly in terms of the human micro-implications of a particular situation. We need also to look carefully at the roles individuals play in important social structures, and the roles those structures play in society as a whole.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris is doing its best to get its hands on research about teen smoking, and encouraging some UK academics to violate ethical standards along the way.
Here’s the story, by Andrew Hough for the Telegraph: Philip Morris: tobacco firm using FOI laws to access secret academic data
Philip Morris International has tried to force the University of Stirling to hand over secret data into teenage smoking and cigarette packaging gathered over more than a decade.
The manufacturers behind the popular Marlboro brand, have used Freedom of Information laws to [attempt to] gain access [to] about 6000 confidential interviews undertaken with teenagers as young as 13, which discuss their views on smoking and tobacco….
The researchers are rightly fighting the request.
It’s a shocking move on Philip Morris’s part, even just from a PR point of view. To be seen seeking information that the company clearly hopes to use in marketing to children will do nothing to improve anyone’s opinion of the firm or the industry.
But there’s a second wrong, here, and that lies in the attempt to get the researchers in question to violate their obligations to the research subjects — the children and their parents — who participated in the research in question.
When university-based researchers conduct any kind of research on human beings, they are required to adhere to pretty strict standards for research ethics. The most fundamental of those standards has to do with obtaining informed consent from research subjects. Such consent may be obtained only after research subjects are fully informed about the goals of the research, as well as about what sorts of privacy protections they can expect. In the case described here, it is almost certainly the case that the children interviewed, and their parents, would have been assured that while the researchers would of course eventually make public the aggregate results of their research, the raw data — the interview transcripts that Philip Morris seems to be seeking — would of course be kept confidential.
So Philip Morris is asking these researchers to break their promise and to breach the trust placed in them by research subjects. The company is attempting to get the researchers to violate their duty. This puts the company’s behaviour into the same moral category as suborning perjury or intentionally putting another party into a conflict of interest. It’s a bad thing when a company violates its own duties; but it is especially corrosive to work so hard at encouraging other people to violate theirs.