Archive for the ‘workplace safety’ Category
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.
A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is a hellishly complex piece of machinery. Picture a boat the length of three football fields, carrying several dozen heavily-armed aircraft into a war zone. It’s a boat with a crew of 3,200 plus an additional 2,400 involved in flying, maintaining, and launching aircraft. Oh, and it’s powered by a pair of Westinghouse A4W nuclear reactors.
As it happens, the US Navy has 10 such carriers. And on these unimaginably complex machines, errors of any significance are practically unknown. Time after time, F/A-18 Super Hornets laden with missiles are literally catapulted from the flight deck, sent out on missions, and then land again on the carrier’s super-short runway. And failure is practically unknown. This requires amazing skill on the part of pilots, but it also requires an incredible team effort, and a system built to include multiple redundant safeguards. The safety record of nuclear aircraft carriers is so good that they are now a standard example of highly-efficient, low-failure, complex systems, the kind that other complex systems should aspire to become. They are systems in which failure is simply not an option, and smart design makes sure it just doesn’t happen.
Next, let’s look at another complex system, namely an oil company and its network of pipelines. Let’s look in particular at one Canadian company, namely Enbridge. Enbridge’s pipeline system, as far as I can tell, is significantly more prone to failure than an aircraft carrier. Just under a year ago, I wrote about a leak in an Enbridge pipeline running past the tiny northern Canadian town of Wrigley. That was a small leak, but one that raised serious concerns for the local native community that eked out its living from the now-polluted land. That leak involved maybe a thousand barrels of oil. But just a year earlier, an Enbridge pipeline running through southwest Michigan spilled 20,000 barrels into a creek leading to the Kalamazoo River. And now, this past Friday, another significant leak was reported. This time, the company’s “Line 14″ spilled about a thousand barrels of crude into a field in Wisconsin. And this is just to name a few of the company’s pipelines over the last decade.
Of course, there’s no special reason to pick on Enbridge. Other companies in the oil exploration and refining industry have spotty records, too. BP is perhaps the most dramatic example that comes to mind. It was the company behind the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, and the subsequent spill that devastated a big chunk of the Gulf coast.
There’s little doubt that, for the foreseeable future, oil companies like Enbridge and BP are a practical necessity. Like it or not, our economy depends on them. They are as necessary to our economy as an aircraft carrier is to the US’s naval supremacy. But the fact that those companies are so essential is precisely the thing that dictates that they must do better. They must seek the kind of never-fail efficiency exemplified by carriers like the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Abraham Lincoln.
There are of course important differences between an aircraft carrier and a system of pipelines. For one thing, an aircraft carrier exists in a single place, under the watchful eye of a single Commanding Officer; a pipeline can stretch for thousands of unobserved miles, necessarily subject to only infrequent inspection. For another thing, various corporate motives summed up very imprecisely by the term “the profit motive” mean that there will always be temptations for oil companies to cut corners. But the example is there, and the body of knowledge is there. Oil companies can, and must, do better.
It’s often pointed out that business is a tough, hard-hitting game. In fact, that’s often cited as a reason for skepticism about any role for ethics in business. After all, ethics is (so they say) about good behaviour, not about aggressive competition. And there’s just no role for nicey-nicey rules in the rough-and-tumble world of business.
But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Rules are endemic to commerce, as they are to all other competitive games played by people in civilized societies. The rules of the game, after all, and the fact that most people play by them most of the time, are what differentiate commerce from crime.
This point is nicely illustrated by the serious scandal in which Football’s New Orleans Saints are currently embroiled.
The facts of this scandal are roughly as follows: players on the team, along with one assistant coach, maintained a ‘bounty pool’ amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, from which bounties were paid to players who inflicted serious injuries on players from opposing teams. This violates the NFL’s “bounty rule,” which specifically forbids teams from paying players for specific achievements within the game, including things like hurting other players. Why would the League have such a rule? Don’t they understand that football is a tough, hard-hitting game?
A game like football in fact has a couple of different kinds of rules. One kind of rule is there merely to define what the game is. The rule in football that says you can only throw the ball forward once per down is such a rule. The rule could easily be different, but the rule is what it is, and it’s part of what constitutes the game of (American) football. Other rules — including those that put limits on violence, and those that prescribe the limits on the field of play — have a more crucial role, namely that of ensuring that the game continues to be worth playing. Football (and hockey and a few other sports) involve controlled aggression and controlled violence, of a kind that would be considered seriously problematic, even illegal, if it took place outside of a sporting event.
The reason we consider such ritualized violence acceptable is that it is conducted according to a set of rules to which all involved consent. Players recognize that they might get injured, but they presumably feel it worth the chance of being injured in return for some combination of fame, glory, and a sizeable income. In addition, there are significant social benefits, including especially the enjoyment of fans who are willing, in the aggregate, to spend millions of dollars to patronize such sports. So the deal is basically that we, as a society, allow aggressive, violent behaviour, as long as it is played by a set of rules that ensures that a) participation in the game is mutually-beneficial and b) no one on the sidelines gets hurt.
The New Orleans Saints’ bounty system violated that social contract. It undermined the very moral foundation of the game.
And that is precisely how we ought to think of the rules of business. Yes, it’s a tough, adversarial domain. Apple should try to crush Dell by offering better products and better customer service. Ford must try its best to outdo GM, not least because consumers benefit from that competitive zeal. Indeed, failure to compete must be regarded as a grave offence. But competition has limits. And the limits on competitive behaviour are not arbitrary; nor are they the same limits as we place on aggressive behaviour at home or in the street.
The limits on competitive behaviour in business, however poorly-defined, must be precisely those limits that keep the ‘game’ socially beneficial. And it’s far too easy to forget that reasonably-free capitalist markets are subject to that basic moral justification. When done properly, such markets offer remarkable freedom and unparalleled improvements in human well-being. Behaviour that threatens the tendency of markets to produce mutual benefit effectively pulls the rug out from under the entire enterprise. Such behaviour is an offence not just to those who are hurt directly, but to all who enjoy — or who ought to enjoy — the benefits that flow from such a beautiful game.
Once upon a time, I was a child labourer in the agricultural sector.
You see, I grew up on a small farm. I learned to drive a tractor when I was 10 years old. I was barely strong enough to push the clutch pedal all the way in. By 12, I was loading bales of hay onto wagons and feeding livestock. Like thousands of other youngsters across North America, I was part of a middle-class farm family.
Of course, my experience — and, I would think, the experience of other farm kids in North America — was worlds apart from the brutality of child labour in developing nations. But there is at least some overlap in terms of ethical issues.
So I’ve been interested to see the debate over proposed changes to US labour laws. The proposed changes “would ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven equipment and prevent those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain bins and stockyards….” The only exception would be children working on farms “wholly owned” by their families.
I don’t have a strong point of view to put forward on this issue. I know I learned a lot as a farm kid, and my parents always made sure I was safe. But growing up on a farm, even a North American farm, isn’t always a positive experience.
All I want to point out here is that there are a couple of importantly-different levels to this controversy.
One level has to do with the conflict between parental autonomy and government regulations designed to protect children. Kids are among society’s most vulnerable members, and some parents are careless, and so government has some obligation to promote their safety and wellbeing. But on the other hand, a society in which parents were not allowed to make important lifestyle decisions for their children — including some risky ones — would be intolerable. (Note: far more children die of drowning each year than die in agricultural mishaps. Never mind automobile accidents.)
But the other level here has to do with regulation and the complexity of human business activities.
You see, the details of the above story, about revising US labor laws, illustrate the difficulty inherent in writing regulations. When US labour laws were originally devised, the meaning of the term “family farm” may have been relatively clear and succinct. So it made sense to say that kids, while generally forbidden from working, could still work on their parents’ “family farm.” But as the story points out, the current proposal “did not consider the thousands of farms nationwide that are owned by closely held corporations or partnerships of family members and other relatives.” In other words, there’s more than one way to structure a business that fits the basic criteria for what we would legitimately call a “family farm,” of the kind that merits a (partial) exemption from child labour laws.
And so this case provides just one more little example of the general principle that regulations aimed at regulating business face the eternal challenge of keeping up with varying and evolving business practices. That means not just headaches for regulators, but also heightened obligations for business to self-regulate.
Italian cruise-ship Captain Francesco Schettino is in jail, following an incident that left 6 dead and (at present) 29 missing. Among the accusations levied against is that he fled the foundering vessel before it was empty. (According to maritime law, a captain doesn’t literally have to “go down with the ship,” but he or she is supposed to be the last one off after ensuring the safety of others.)
Legal requirements aside, is there an ethical obligation for a captain to risk life and limb to stay on board until the last passenger and crewmembers are off? The answer is pretty clearly “yes.” Like many jobs, the job of captaining a ship comes with a range of risks and benefits. As long as the risks were understood when the job was taken on, you’re obligated to follow through.
There’s a more general point to be made here about the nature of ethics, and about ethics education and training.
Ethics often requires of us actions that we’d rather not carry out. You should tell the truth, even when it would be more convenient not to. You should keep your promises, even when breaking them would be more profitable. This is necessarily the case: if ethics only ever required you to do things you already wanted to do, there’d be no need for ethical rules (or at least no need to think of them as rules in the prescriptive sense).
But there’s at least a superficial tension, here, with the idea that ethics should be useful. After all, if having and following an ethical code doesn’t benefit us in some way, why bother? Sure, it’s easy enough to say “The right thing to do is the right thing to do,” but a system of ethics needs some justification in terms of human well-being or it’s just not going to be very credible, not to mention stable. Indeed, some ethical systems are subject to serious criticism precisely because their implications for human well-being are negative. Yes yes, I understand that your code of honour requires you to kill the man who killed your brother, but don’t you see how crazy this all is?
So there’s got to be some connection between ethics and benefit. And it’s not enough to point to social benefit. After all, pointing out that the community benefits from me taking ethics seriously merely pushes the question of justification to a second level: why should I care about the good of the community, especially if doing so requires significant self-sacrifice?
None of this should engender skepticism or cynicism. It just means we need to think carefully about who benefits, and how, from a system of ethics.
It also means that we need to think about how we can help individuals keep the promises that it was in their interest, initially to make. Captain Schettino found it in his interest to make certain promises (albeit perhaps implicit ones) when he signed on to be captain of the Costa Concordia, but then all of a sudden found himself in a situation where it was not in his interest to keep that promise. Threats of punishment were understandably insufficient, here. Staying out of jail is no great incentive if you’re free-but-dead.
Organizations of all kinds — including especially corporations and professional associations — need to work hard to help members think of the relevant ethical rules as something more than the terms of a contract, to help members become the sorts of people who simply would never abandon ship when they are needed most.
When new technology puts sweatshop labourers out of work, is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s not an entirely hypothetical question.
Here’s the story, from Fast Company: Nike’s New Thermo-Molded Sneakers Are Like Sculptures For Your Feet
The classic Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90 Nike shoes get the Vac Tech treatment–a thermo-molding technique that produces one-piece, stitch-free sneakers.
As a centerpiece for the holiday season, Nike Sportswear has released three of its most venerable brands–the Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90–constructed using a thermo-molding technique, a kind of vacuum compression method that allows the shoe to be held together without any noticeable seams or stitching. The Nike Dunk VT, above, basically recreates the familiar silhouette of the original design as sculpture around your feet.
Now presumably — though details are sketchy — the lack of stitching will mean these babies will be cranked out by machines, rather than assembled by hand by underpaid people in underdeveloped nations. Critics who think there’s no such thing as a good sweatshop should rejoice. But will sweatshop workers be so happy?
I hasten to add that the word “sweatshop” in its most pejorative sense doesn’t really apply to Nike. Nike, once villainized for having its shoes made by poorly-paid workers working under appalling conditions, is now widely recognized as a garment-industry leader in terms of labour standards. But that’s not to say that a job in a factory that makes Nike shoes is peachy. It’s still a hard life, by western standards. So is it good, or bad, for such labourers if a machine is developed that makes their services redundant?
As I’ve pointed out before, the workers vs machines conflict is, in the grand scheme of things, a false one. Machines can make workers more efficient (and hence valuable), can save humans from dangerous tasks, and can improve net social productivity in a way that stands to benefit literally everyone, in the long run.
But such generalizations don’t obviate the fact that there are some cases in which a new technology comes along and puts you out of work.
Unemployment is bad. Sweatshop jobs are bad. So do we celebrate or mourn when someone with a sweatshop job is put out of work? And is this a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils? Or the greater of two goods? And what does our answer to that question imply about the ethics of buying products made in the sweatshop jobs that remain?
A recent item in the NY Times dealt with the fact that many companies these days seem relatively reluctant to invest in new employees, but comparatively willing to invest in new machinery. The evidence for that is mostly anecdotal, but interesting none the less.
Here’s the story, by Catherine Rampell: Companies Spend on Equipment, Not Workers
Companies that are looking for a good deal aren’t seeing one in new workers.
Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people….
The story gives the distinct impression that the issue here is not just an issue of machines or people; it’s about machines versus people, and machines are clearly winning the hearts and minds of employers these days. On the face of it, that sounds bad. Workers — people — matter, from a moral point of view, and machines don’t. So, other things being equal, it is better to spend money on doing something good for people (e.g., providing someone with a job) than it is to spend money on mere machines.
But two perhaps-not-obvious points need to be made, here.
The first point is that even when employers choose to purchase machines instead of hiring employees, that needn’t be a bad thing socially, nor bad for labour as a group. Machinery tends to boost productivity, and boosting productivity boosts wealth, so from a social point of view (including from the point of view of blue-collar workers) it is good when companies invest in machinery. Even if machines displace workers in a given industry, that needn’t spell trouble for workers as a class. In the early 19th Century, Luddites destroyed mechanized looms in a vain attempt to forestall the effect of the industrial revolution on employment patterns in the textile industry. And yet, in the long run, the industrial revolution did nothing to worsen the lot of labourers. Indeed, it ushered in an era of prosperity that made the lot of labourers as a whole vastly better. To be sure, changes in technology result in unemployment in the particular sectors in which new technologies are introduced. But that tends to be a temporary problem. The standard Econ 101 example is transportation. The advent of the automobile surely resulted in some unemployment among those who had formerly worked in the horse-and-buggy industry. But, in the long run, those workers eventually found jobs in the auto industry, and were no worse off. And so on.
The second point is that, even if we focus on the employees of a particular organization, labour and machines are not always (and maybe not even often) in competition. Machines and tools can make employees’ lives better, and in those cases, certainly, spending money on machines and tools is a good thing. The most obvious case is when the equipment purchased is, say, safety equipment, or when the machines purchased are ones with additional safety features or features that make work less back-breaking.
But purchase of equipment can also be good in another way. Machines and tools of various kinds can make labour more productive, and more productive labour is more valuable. Not everyone realizes that the productivity of labour — the amount of goods that can be turned out per hour of a worker’s time — varies vastly across the globe. An hour of an American worker’s labour, for example, produces far more output than an hour of a Chinese worker’s labour. And the reason has little to nothing to do differences in work ethic or intelligence or talent. The difference lies in national differences in access to tools, and to differences in organizational and managerial strategies. So investing in better equipment can be a way of investing in the productivity of your workers.
Of course, past some threshold, when labour is more productive, employers may decide they need less of it. The most famous example of this is in farming, where one man with a big tractor now often does the work that a dozen men might have done in years gone by. But the devil is in the details. We should at least recognize that investment in machinery is not automatically contrary to the interests of labour.
Questions of employment discrimination and of what counts as a “bona fide occupational qualification,” are always challenging.
See, for example, this story published yesterday in the Globe & Mail: Starbucks sued for firing dwarf from barista job
The U.S. government is suing Starbucks Corp. … saying the coffee company fired a barista in El Paso, Tex., because she is a dwarf.
When the employee asked for a stool or small stepladder to perform her job, Starbucks denied the request and fired her that same day, claiming that she could be a danger to customers and workers, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission….
As several commenters on the Globe story point out, the space behind a Starbucks counter is not a great place for an employee to stand stationary on a stool. It’s a fast-paced workplace in which people work with hot coffee and scalding jets of steam. So, Starbucks is at least not being entirely unreasonable in suggesting that allowing their would-be employee to stand there on a stool. That, I take it, is the key legal question.
But it seems to me that there’s another issue here, which has to do with just how critical this particular job is to this particular person. How critical the job is reveals the extent to which the company’s refusal to accommodate counts as an impediment to the would-be employee’s interests. Consider a different kind of example. Consider a situation in which the job in question is a high-paid unionized job, in a town with few employers. In such a situation, having that job might be really, really important. Or consider an employee who is moving up a corporate ladder. Imagine that the job at the third rung of the ladder (but only that one) requires that the employee receive some form of accommodation. Here, accommodation is crucial not just for the job, but for the employee’s entire career trajectory.
So there are, arguably, jobs for which accommodation is exceptionally important. But (with all due respect to the nice people who make my grande no-whip mocha) most of us don’t think of a job at Starbucks that way. We think of a job as a barrista as basically just another McJob, one which pays maybe a little over minimum wage and which is interchangeable with lots of other kinds of jobs in similar industries.
On the other hand, Starbucks likely doesn’t see its jobs that way, and doesn’t want to. At least, that’s the impression one gets from visiting the company’s Career Centre. So even if it turns out that Starbucks isn’t legally required to accommodate this person, doing so might be consistent with the values they claim to embrace, and the kind of workplace image they want to project.
Thanks to Dominic Martin for showing me this story.
Most people think of bullying as a problem of the schoolyard. But increasingly that term is being used to describe aggression in all kinds of settings in which power imbalances are common and in which aggression is problematic. Bullying in the workplace, for example, is far from new, but it has been in the spotlight in recent years.
See, for example, this editorial by Theresa Brown, for the NY Times, on bullying in healthcare workplaces: Physician, Heel Thyself
…while most doctors clearly respect their colleagues on the nursing staff, every nurse knows at least one, if not many, who don’t.
Indeed, every nurse has a story like mine, and most of us have several. A nurse I know, attempting to clarify an order, was told, “When you have ‘M.D.’ after your name, then you can talk to me.” A doctor dismissed another’s complaint by simply saying, “I’m important.”
While bullying may be a particularly dangerous in healthcare, where patients’ lives can easily depend on just how well a team of heal professionals functions, bullying, or even subtler forms of interpersonal conflict, can be common in any kind of workplace. And indeed, while the risks of poor team performance in healthcare are especially vivid, it has the potential to have serious negative effects — effects far beyond the people directly involved — in all kinds of businesses that themselves have significant impact on people’s lives or the natural environment. It isn’t difficult to imagine, for example, bullying being part of the root cause of the kind of poor teamwork that might result in an environmental catastrophe like BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill.
Brown’s article rightly points to the significance of ‘tone at the top.’ Basically, if the boss is a bully, such behaviour is liable to trickle down the chain of command. So leaders have a strong obligation neither to engage in, nor to tolerate, bullying. But people much farther down the chain of command also face ethical questions with regard to bullying — including especially how to respond to it and deal with it. Those with the least power within an organization are likely going to be the most vulnerable to bullying. Some of the toughest ethical challenges faced by junior people in an organization may have to do with responding to pressure from above, and with the difficulties inherent in being at the bottom of their organizational hierarchies. Younger employees, or ones simply new to that particular workplace, understandably find it difficult — and a source of moral distress — not just to survive bullying, but sometimes to be involved in courses of action that they see as unethical and yet that they are powerless to do anything about. It’s hard to know what advice to give to people in such situations, because sometimes there really is very little they can do. But one thing they can do is to consider, starting right now, how they should treat those beneath them in the hierarchy, if and when they themselves move up it, and how they are going to make sure not to fall into those same, all-too-common, toxic behaviours.
Amidst the upheaval in Libya, questions arise about foreign companies doing business there. Many firms, of course, are pulling out and evacuating any employees currently on the ground, for obvious reasons related to safety. But there are apparently still a few reasonably safe places in Libya, places far from the major cities that are the focus on the current fighting. And certainly business done from afar is still an option. So, that leaves companies with choices. Should Libya be considered entirely off-limits? At this point in the conflict, various governments have issued orders that put restrictions in place. But that doesn’t mean that Libya is, from a legal point of view at least, a no-go zone. (Canada’s government, for example, has clarified that Canadian firms are still allowed to do business in Libya, generally, but not with the Libyan government or with the Libyan Central Bank.)
I’m sure many will be tempted to say that foreign companies should pull out entirely. But then, it’s not clear that such a blanket prohibition does much good for the people of Libya as a whole. Note, for example, that Libya currently imports about 75% of its food. Stopping doing business with Libya would mean starving its population.
Of course, even before the current crisis, Libya was a dubious place to do business — at least some kinds of business. Note, for example, that a Canadian company has faced questions about its role in building a fancy new prison for the Gadhafi government. (From the Globe & Mail, see: SNC-Lavalin defends Libyan prison project.)
(An interesting side-note: SNC-Lavalin was recently ranked as one of the best-governed corporations in Canada. Note also that the companies shares are down, apparently because of worries not just about Libya, but about the entire region. About a quarter of the country’s income comes from the Middle East and Africa.)
Building a prison for use by a dictatorship is exactly the kind of project that is likely to draw fire. But that’s not entirely fair, either. As the G&M notes, Libya has been under international pressure to modernize its prisons. And if it is a legitimately good thing for a dictator to upgrade his prisons, then it’s hard to claim that it’s unethical for a company to make a profit by helping him do so.