Monday, March 28, 2016

Legal Problems

If regulation and law were the answer, the world would be a perfect place.

We've had to legislate for civil rights, fair labor practices, child labor laws, occupational safety and health regulations ...  why did we have to do that?  Why would we have to regulate how badly you can treat people?

In urban Kenya, my driver pointed out how construction workers climbed the scaffolding carrying cinder blocks and wearing sandals.  It's cheaper, he explained, to bribe the safety inspector than to buy safety gear for the workers. And if they employ folks for more than 90 days, they have to provide benefits, so they fire their workers every 89 days.  All of them.  Then they hire a new group and press on.

The employer who would treat workers that badly is a criminal, of course; he's breaking the intent of the law.  The law isn't enough, however, in Kenya or here. The law provides the minimum threshold for 'legal' behavior, but 'fair' and 'just' can be a long way up the ladder from there.

The abuse of employees through poverty wages and restrictive scheduling is legal, but it is ethically no different than the merchant who bought and sold slaves in years past.  Then and now, some are willing to thrive at the expense of other's lives.  Advocates of slavery defended the practice with arguments of economic necessity, class superiority, and even biblical approval.  For a long time, most folks claimed slavery was reasonable and even a good thing for the enslaved.

In 1837, Senator John C. Calhoun argued, "Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually." He went on, "I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other."  We know better now, sort of.  Okay, not really; our change of heart doesn't quite cover today's identical practices under a different name.

The result of today's labor practices, 20%+ of American children live in poverty.  For four decades, wage and schedule practices have become progressively more oppressive for workers while corporate profits have soared.  Attempts to legislate a living wage have failed.

You can't legislate a good heart or a reasonable conscience, we've discovered.  Wealth tends to erode every good intent and dull every sensitivity.

Thanks and a hat tip to our government (both parties) for years of legislation bought and paid for by big business.  It now extends into the world marketplace and touches every person in the world.

Now the hard question.  How do I as a person of conscience avoid participating in the abuse of others?  I won't buy clothes made in child-labor shops overseas, of course.  I'll stick to 'fair trade' products.  But are there companies I'll boycott?

Among the largest low/minimum wage employers whose employees are noted for living below the poverty line:
  • Walmart with 1,400,000 employees
  • McDonald's with 860,000
  • Burger King, 191,000
  • KFC (and others under Yum brand) 880,000 employees 
Does boycott work?  Or dragging them into the public forum to answer for their practices?  Or explain the problem in front of legislators.

Walmart has begun to change, thanks to the public outcry against their wage and schedule abuse of employees.  Through early 2016, every Super Center costs between $900K and $1.6M in annual welfare for their employees living in poverty.

Better than boycott, perhaps, are there any fair business companies I can endorse?
Do Costco or Target qualify?  Or Amazon?
What are we going to do with what we know?