Archive for the ‘wages’ Category

NHL Lockout and the Ethics of Labour Disputes

When the rich and powerful butt heads, are they obligated to look out for the little guy?

The NHL lockout may be over, but its impact is far from forgotten. Or even clear. And the impact goes far beyond the loss of income to the NHL, its member teams and its players.

The end of the dispute may mean little to the economy as a whole, but to one portion of the economy — the portion that depends for its livelihood on the actual playing of hockey games — it means everything. The economic loss to Canada as a whole as a result of the loss of half a season of hockey may amount to less than 0.05 per cent of GDP, but the impact was felt disproportionately by the thousands of businesses and individuals that depend for their livelihood on the NHL and its players. For every Sidney Crosby or Daniel Alfredsson making millions on the ice, there is an entire ecosystem of managers, announcers, hotdog vendors, and Zamboni drivers who only have jobs because hockey is being played.

The lockout resulted, in other words, in a lot of so-called ‘collateral damage.’ Some teams had to lay off staff (in some cases, that meant hundreds of employees per team) and many businesses — from sports bars to the guy selling hotdogs outside the arena — saw business dip or even bottom out entirely.

Of course, this is true in almost any labour dispute. When auto assembly-line workers go on strike, workers at companies that manufacture parts for those assembly lines may see hard times as a result. But as many have pointed out, the dispute between the NHLPA and the NHL was a dispute between millionaires and billionaires, which gives the whole thing a distinctly different feel.

Whether the 113-day dispute was worthwhile to either the players or the league — whether either side gained more than it lost — is for them to decide. The relevant ethics question, here, is what part the financial fate of these innocent bystanders should have played in the decision making of the two parties to this dispute, namely the NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA). Should the league and players have felt any obligation to end the dispute early, in order to limit financial collateral damage?

It is tempting to cast this question as a matter of what economists call ‘externalities.’ Externalities are the effects that an economic transaction has on non-consenting bystanders. Pollution and noise are standard examples. And both economic theory and ethical theory agree that externalities are a bad thing. It is typically both inefficient and unfair if significant costs are foisted on innocent bystanders.

But economic theory, at least, doesn’t typically count the income effects of competitive behaviour as “real” externalities. If I outbid you in an auction, your interests have been harmed but not in a way that results in either economic inefficiency or real injustice. If I invent a better mousetrap and put makers of lesser products out of business, the result is ‘frictional’ unemployment but also long-term social gain. And during a labour dispute, money not being spent on hockey-arena hotdogs or Zamboni-driver wages are surely being spent on something else: one man’s loss is another’s gain.

But while not technically unfair, the outcome for bystanders is certainly unfortunate, a bad thing by almost any measure even if not the result of wrongful behaviour. And when the dispute at hand is between millionaires and billionaires, it’s worth asking at least whether the rich don’t have some duty, some social obligation, to take better care of those less fortunate.

Once upon a time, the rich and powerful cleaved to the notion of ‘noblesse oblige,’ the idea that with wealth and power come responsibility. Of course, even if the team owners and the players took such social obligations seriously, that doesn’t necessarily mean the dispute would have ended earlier. An obligation to look out for the little guy doesn’t mean an obligation to throw in the towel. But the notion of social responsibility, not to say humility, might well have done something to reduce the length, and impact, of what many regard to have been a pointless conflict in the first place.

Is a Store a Person?

Contrary to what many claim to believe, the union representing workers at Zellers stores in Calgary, Alberta, believe that corporations (or businesses more generally) are in fact persons, morally and legally. At least, that’s what seems to be implied by the position they are taking.

Here’s the background, for those who don’t already know. Zellers is Canada’s second-largest chain of discout stores. The well-known American chain, Target, has acquired the leases on 189 Zellers locations (about 3/4 of the total). So, over the next couple of years, Zellers signs will be taken down, and Zellers merchandise will disappear, to be replaced by Target signs and merchandise.

But what about the employees? Not surprisingly, they will be laid off by Zellers. Target, apparently, will welcome applications from the former Zellers employees, but with no guarantee, for example, that their years of service for Zellers will count for anything. They will, in other words, be brand new employees as far as Target is concerned.

But wait, says the union representing those employees. You mean that a worker with 20 years experience could conceivably leave Zellers one day, return (to the same building) the next morning to her new job at Target, and find she’s being paid like she’s got zero experience? So much for being loyal to loyal employees!

But notice what this line of reasoning assumes. It assumes that a store — indeed, a physical location — is something that can have responsibilities. The sign can change; the merchandise can change; even the ownership can change. But the store where you’ve worked the last 20 years is still, on some level, the same store. Or so the theory goes.

And the theory is not without some basis in law. In at least some jurisdictions, union representation, for example, carries over to the new owners when a business is sold. You can’t sell your business and thereby simply void the contract with the union representing your employees. (You can imagine the alternative: two brothers could “sell” their company back and forth to each other every 6 months just to neuter the union. It’s probably in the public interest to keep that loophole closed.)

But the present case isn’t quite like that. Target isn’t buying the Zellers stores lock, stock, and barrel. They’re simply taking over the buildings. So the transfer is unlikely to fall under the principle that a pre-existing collective agreement “goes with the business.” So for the union to assert that Target has responsibilities to the employees-formerly-known-as-Zellers-employees requires an especially strong version of the corporate “personhood” thesis, according to which corporations are to be treated as individual entities, under the law, for purposes of contracting, land ownership, and so on.

I doubt the union’s argument here can be made to hold water, though I would be interested to hear if readers think differently.

My main point, here, is just to point out the presuppositions of the union’s position, especially given that it presupposes a point of view that is rejected (albeit wrong-headedly) by so many.

Samsung, Chinese Workers, and Labour Rights

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.

Healthcare, Unions, and Selling Donuts to Canadians

Selling donuts to Canadians sounds so easy that it seems like the punch-line to a not-very-funny joke.

Apparently, however, it isn’t always such and easy thing to do. Or at least, not easy enough to support paying double the minimum wage to the people who serve the donuts. Witness the case of the three Tim Hortons kiosks at Windsor Regional Hospital (in Windsor, Ontario, just across the border from Detroit, MI). At Windsor Regional, the donut-and-coffee kiosks are a big drain (to the tune of a quarter-million dollars a year) rather than a source of revenue. Part of the reason, apparently, is that the servers who work there are paid over $20/hour — far above Ontario’s minimum wage of $10.25. The kiosks are in effect being driven under by their own employees.

Part of the complexity of this story lies in the fact that the donut kiosks in question are at a hospital. So this isn’t just a question of a profit-hungry capitalist at odds with unionized employees. The cost overrun in this case is borne by the hospital, a not-for-profit organization that must recoup the cost in other ways.

The donut kiosks, along with other food service outlets at the hospital, are part of the organization’s overall operating budget, part of the overall cost of providing healthcare to the people in the hospital’s catchment area. As Canadian health economist Robert Evans has often pointed out, every dollar spent on healthcare is a dollar of income for someone. The result is that there are plenty of people — some wealthy, and some not so wealthy — with a vested interest in not reducing the cost of healthcare. That’s not a matter of malice; it’s just a matter of math.

But of course, the salaries of unionized employees can only be part of the tale, here. If the three kiosks have, say, two employees on duty at a time, then paying each of them only minimum wage would still only save about $120,000 — which accounts for less than half of the shortfall. So it doesn’t make sense to point to the workers’ wages as “the” cause of the problem. The supply of donuts and coffee at Windsor Regional simply seems to be out of line with demand.

Of course, one way out would be for the coffee kiosks to raise their prices. That may or may not be permitted by Tim Hortons’ franchise agreement. But anyway, raising prices would mean pushing the burden onto patients and their families along with hospital staff. And at most hospitals, the on-site food outlets have a virtual monopoly, which puts customers at a serious disadvantage. It also means that demand at a hospital is less elastic, which means the hospital kiosks have more power to raise prices than a non-hospital donut seller would. And if you believe that the wage currently being paid is a fair one (by some measure), then that’s what should be done. They should raise prices to benefit employees at the expense of patients, families, and staff.

All if this just illustrates that idealism about fair wages has its limits. In a world of limited resources — i.e., the world we live in — giving more to one person often means taking more from someone else. The result is that you can’t argue for higher (or lower) wages without talking about prices. Wages are part of an economic system, and discussions of justice in one part of that system can’t ignore justice in the others.

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(Thanks to Prof. Alexei Marcoux for pointing out this story to me.)

Ethics of Shoe-Shine Pricing

A few days ago at the airport I stopped to have my shoes shined professionally, something I rarely do. The service was excellent. The guy doing the work was pleasant and knowledgeable, and the results were beautiful. The price, revealed at the end of the process: $6.75. I gave the guy a ten, and told him to keep the change. Now, that’s not exactly enough to make me think I’m a big spender, but it’s pretty good, percentage-wise (nearly a 50% tip). The guy sitting next to me did the same thing, by the way, and I’m betting that’s actually a pretty common pattern.

This got me thinking about the relationship between pricing, tipping, and currency denominations. If the price of the shoe-shine were $8.00, most people likely would still give the guy the same $10, resulting in a substantially smaller tip. But if the price were closer to $5, I bet most people would pull out a $5 bill and then looked for some change to add as a tip. So whoever sets the basic price for the shoe-shine has enormous power to influence the size of tips.

Now, the guy who shined my shoes was wearing a shirt bearing the logo of a chain of shoe care-and-repair stores, so I’m guessing he wasn’t setting his own prices. This implies that the company he works for, in addition to making a decision about his base pay, is also, through its pricing policies, making a decision that likely has an even bigger impact on his income. Of course, that decision is not entirely unrestricted. The company in question has to cover its costs. But presumably it has different pricing strategies open to it. Crudely, it can set prices high, which will likely keep demand down but will result in a big per-sale profit margin; or the company can set its prices low, and rely on volume. Either strategy might make economic sense. If (and that might be a big “if”) both strategies have the potential to work out equally well for the company, that means the choice is open, and the potential is there to base pricing on whichever strategy will do the most for employees in terms of providing customers an incentive for large tips.

(Another example: any bar manager that sets the price of a beer at $4.50 is pretty much ensuring that wait-staff are going to get lousy tips — the temptation for many people is going to be to plunk $5 onto the bar, resulting in a tip of 50 cents or 11%.)

But the factual foundation of this question, beyond my own anecdote, is all speculation on my part. I’ve never had a job where I relied on tips. Can anyone shed any light on the relevant facts, here? And does anyone know whether incentivizing tipping is something companies ever take into consideration in their pricing decisions?

Regulating Wall Street Bonuses

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has just announced its intention to exercise oversight over levels of pay on Wall Street. Is this an example of overreaching regulation, or of justified intervention in the public interest?

Here are the details, from Ben Protess and Susanne Craig, on the NYT‘s DealBook blog: S.E.C. Proposes Crackdown on Wall Street Bonuses:

Lavish Wall Street bonuses, long the scorn of lawmakers and shareholders, have met a new foe: the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The agency on Wednesday proposed a crackdown on hefty compensation awarded at big banks, brokerage firms and hedge funds — a move intended to rein in pay packages that encouraged excessive risk-taking before the financial crisis.

The proposal would for the first time require Wall Street firms to file detailed accounts of their bonuses with the S.E.C., which could then ban any awards it deemed excessive. The rules would be aimed at top executives and hundreds of rank-and-file employees who receive incentive-based pay….

In general, we should probably have as our starting point a healthy skepticism about government attempts to regulate pay in particular industries. Remuneration for high-level jobs is typically based on some combination of rewarding past performance and incentivizing future performance, in addition to sensitivity to things like skill, experience, and the scarcity of the particular talents the job requires. And it’s highly unlikely, again speaking in generalities, that government agencies are going to have the right information and motives to allow them to determine with any degree of precision and efficiency just what a private company’s pay structure should be. Now of course governments aren’t the only ones who could err in setting up compensation schemes; private companies are perfectly capable of screwing that up pretty badly themselves. But for the most part, if private companies screw up in that regard, it’s their shareholders that should hold them accountable, just as it is shareholders who ought to hold them accountable for any other foolish spending.

But there are likely to be justified exceptions to the general presumption in favour of the government taking hands-off approach to compensation. If it is the case — and this seems to be the S.E.C.’s conclusion, here — that compensation schemes in a particular industry are seriously and chronically causing harm beyond the walls of the organization, that seems to be a pretty good argument in favour of government action. This is especially true when the damage being done is not “merely” damage to particular individuals or groups, but to the stability of the economy as a whole. And as Protess and Craig point out, “The move by regulators to have more say on Wall Street pay highlights the huge role financial institutions play in the economy.” That is what arguably makes the harm done by Wall Street compensation not just a matter of private wrongs, but of public ones.

But of course, this argument doesn’t mean the S.E.C. should rush in like a bull in a china shop. All of the concerns mentioned above still apply — there are reasons why Wall Street firms have the compensation policies they have, and it’s pretty likely that at least some of those reasons are pretty good ones related to the necessities of the industry. Indeed, the S.E.C.’s chairwoman, Mary L. Schapiro, says that “This is an area where we want to be very attuned to unintended consequences.” The S.E.C.’s objectives here, seem to be good ones; the question will be whether the quality of the agency’s methods live up to the nobility of its goals.

Ethics and Economics (And Coffee Too)

A bit of economics can go a long ways in helping understand a range of issues in business ethics. I’m not an economist myself, but I’ve read a fair bit of economics here & there. And I want to read more. In order to arrive at sound ethical conclusions, you need more than just ethical beliefs: you need some understanding of how the world works. For many issues in business ethics, economics provides relevant facts.

For example, consider ethical issues related to price. Prices are clearly important to all of us: the price of a thing tells us how much we would have to pay to get it. But economists recognize that prices play two other very important social roles, roles that are important to the way the economy as a whole operates.

First, a price conveys information. When something is expensive, that tends to convey the fact that it is scarce — scarce enough that buyers are willing to pay a lot for it, and are perhaps even competing with each other and hence bidding up the price. Likewise, when something is cheap, that generally conveys the fact that it is plentiful. (Note that scarcity can be either natural, a straightforward matter of the amount of a thing in existence, or artificial, as when some person or company gains monopoly control over the supply of a thing.)

Second, a price provides motivation. People are generally (though unevenly) motivated by money, and by money-making and money-saving opportunities. (If you really don’t care about money, you should send me all of yours. Thanks.) Among those who want to buy a good, high prices tend to lower demand, and low prices tend to increase it. Price also affects suppliers. The fact that the price for a given good or service is high is going to tend to motivate people to want to get into that line of business. A low price is going to tend to deter people from making that their line of work.

Now, how does that understanding of the social role of prices affect a real-life issue in business ethics? Here’s a simple example of the social function of prices at work, and why economics matters for ethics. It’s an example I learned from the book, The Undercover Economist, written by economist Tim Harford.

Consider coffee. Coffee is a hugely important commodity — second only to oil on the world market. Most people know they now have the option of buying ‘fair trade’ coffee, the aim of which is to make sure that the people who grow coffee get a fair deal for what they produce. (October is “Fair Trade Month,” by the way.)

Hartord’s argument is this. Coffee farmers are poor, and will generally remain poor, because the thing they produce isn’t scarce. Coffee is relatively easy to grow, and can be grown in relatively many (hot) places. Buying fair trade coffee (at a premium price) means paying coffee farmers more. Now, recall what I said above about the role of prices in motivating people. Paying more for coffee is likely to draw more growers into the business. And drawing more growers into the business will increase the supply of coffee. And if you increase the supply of coffee, you inevitably depress its market price — and along with it the wages of those who labour on coffee plantations. So it’s hard to make coffee growers alone better off, until workers in other industries (like the garment industry) are well-enough off that they can’t be attracted into the coffee industry by (for example) fair-trade-driven higher wages. According to Harford (p. 229):

High coffee prices will always collapse, until workers in sweatshops become well-paid blue collar workers in skilled manufacturing jobs, who don’t find the idea of being even a prosperous coffee farmer attractive.

That makes it awfully hard, if not impossible, to boost net wages in the coffee industry, in the long run. Now, that by itself is nothing like a conclusive argument against fair trade coffee. But a sound understanding of the economic role of prices does give reason to pause before we accept the notion that we can make people better off simply by voluntarily paying more for a non-scarce commodity. (I’ve blogged before about other problems with the fair trade notion. See: What’s so Fair About Fairtrade?)

As I noted above, I’m not an economist — so if someone reading this can help by correcting anything I’ve written here, or add any further detail, I’d be grateful.

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Here are a few books about economics that I recommend (not all equally good, and I recommend them for different reasons). All of them are aimed at non-economists, and 2 of the 4 are even written by non-economists.

California’s Marijuana Industry: Ethical Issues

I’ve blogged about the insurance industry, the mining industry, the auto industry, even the donut industry. But the pot industry? Yes, it’s time.

From the Sacramento Bee: Growth of California’s Pot Industry is Good News for Unions

As Californians prepare to vote on a November ballot initiative that would expand legalization to recreational pot use, labor groups see the potential for perhaps tens of thousands of unionized jobs.

United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 5, which has 32,000 members in California working in trades including the grocery and food processing industries, began organizing marijuana “bud tenders,” greenhouse workers, packagers and laboratory technicians last spring….

So, here a budding industry, built around a controversial product that is illegal in most jurisdictions. There’s plenty of grass-root support for broader legalization (both for medicinal and recreational use). But there may be enough opposition to blunt the enthusiasm of law-makers about sudden moves. The support of politically-powerful unions is another ethically-significant factor — as is the potential capture of this new industry by unions.

This is such a rich and interesting story that there’s too much in it for me to try to hash it out by myself without resorting to quick, potted answers. So here are a handful of questions to seed the discussion. I’ll let you weed the good from the bad.

  • Ryan Grim reports that “The teachers union, citing the revenue that could be raised for the state, is also backing the initiative.” Is that sufficient reason? You don’t have to be an anti-pot puritan to worry about anything that might (inadvertently) encourage use of pot by school-age kids.
  • What business ethics issues are faced by producers and sellers of pot in the illegitimate parts of the drug industry? What new issues will the newly-legitimized industry face?
  • What CSR-type responsibilities does the (expanding) legal marijuana industry have?
  • Why are California Beer & Beverage Distributors lobbying against the proposed change? (See useful discussion over at Marginal Revolution).
  • What sorts of regulations should the industry seek? What motives will be foremost in industry’s mind in his regard — protecting revenues? protecting its image? protecting consumers?
  • Will the other drug industry — the pharmaceutical industry — move into this line of business? Why or why not?
  • Is the unionization of this industry generally a good or bad thing? Unionization improves the lot of workers, but also tends to raise prices. Since unionization itself is controversial, let’s ask it this way: is the case for unionization stronger or weaker, with regards to the marijuana industry?

I’ll open the floor for discussion.

Should Trapped Miners Be Paid?

Most people don’t expect to be paid when they’re not doing work. Sure, most people get paid during coffee breaks, and lucky folks get paid vacations. And some people get paid sick days. But what about when you’re not working for months on end? Does any employer have an obligation to pay you under those conditions? What about when you’re not working, but physically at work, for months on end?

That’s the issue faced by 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet below ground, in a collapsed Chilean mine.

Here’s the story, written by Nick Allen for the Daily Telegraph, but featured in the Ottawa Citizen: Trapped miners may not be paid

The 33 Chilean miners trapped underground may not be paid for months while rescuers try to reach them, leaving their families with no income.

The San Esteban company, which operates the mine, has said it has no money to pay wages and is not even taking part in the rescue.

It has suggested that it may go bankrupt and its licence has been suspended.

Evelyn Olmos, the leader of the miners’ union, called on Chile’s government to pay the workers’ wages from next month….

My initial impulse: yes, of course the miners deserve to get paid. Granted, they’re not exactly doing productive work, but that’s not their fault. Even though they’re not working, they are in fact still on the job. The problem, of course, is that the company seems financially incapable of paying them, not just unwilling. Legal means can be attempted, but if it’s really true that the company is bankrupt — well, you can’t get blood from a stone. (Note also that, for what it’s worth, the mine’s owners have asked the miners for forgiveness.)

So that leaves the government (i.e., the citizens) of Chile. Should they pay? Now, to be clear — and this is a crucial distinction — I’m not just asking whether it would be a good thing if the miners end up getting paid. I’m asking whether Chilean taxpayers have an obligation to pay them. I think the answer to that is less clear than the question of whether a financially-capable company would have an obligation to pay them. Now, this isn’t a public policy blog, it’s a business ethics blog, so I don’t often delve into what constitutes the morally-best decision for government. But it’s worth thinking about what principles might apply to this case not just from the point of view of government’s obligations to citizens in need, but from the point of view of government’s obligations to take up the slack when industry undertakes dangerous operations that can end up requiring considerable financial resources when things go wrong. Is government’s willingness to clean up the mess part of what lets mining companies put miners at unreasonable risk in the first place? Or should we think instead that the government’s willingness to help out is just part of the insurer-of-last-resort role that we want government to take on, and that allows all sorts of companies (responsible or otherwise) to be in business in the first place?

As a post-script, I should point out that the moral parallels between the Chilean mine rescue and the BP oil spill cleanup, in this regard, are striking.

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Also of interest, on the Research Ethics Blog:
Could Research be Done on the Trapped Miners?

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