Employers, Exploitation and Liberty

In this post, I’m picking up on a theme that has run through a few discussions lately. On the subject of dress codes the discussion was about where the line is drawn across which an employer has no right to step. That line can be difficult to define. Is it okay for an employer to insist upon full makeup, cutting one’s hair, or as Henry Ford did, use house inspectors to see if employees were smoking or drinking in the privacy of their homes? On another discussion, Bucko expresses exasperation about people mentioning employers exploiting employees. For most people, most of the time, he has a point. Someone earning more than you as a consequence of his entrepreneurial skill is not exploitation. Not even close.

However, as I have discovered to my cost this past few months, at the bottom of the food chain, things aren’t so rosy.

While the satanic mills are something of a cliché when discussing employee relations, it remains a fact of history. It is because of rampant abuse that the state felt it necessary to intervene, and in 1801 we saw our first piece of health and safety legislation hit the stature books; the Health Safety and Welfare of Apprentices Act. The state was the only entity that was powerful enough to stand up to the employer of the time. In some cases that is still true. The rise of unionism helped to an extent. And if you work for a pubic body or one that has been privatised but still retains its relationship with a union, then it is likely that the terms and conditions of employment will be favourable.

That said…

I was horrified when I joined the rail industry to see wastefulness writ large and Spanish practices as a consequence of the unionism of the industry. Were these people insulated from the outside world, I wondered (rhetorical question). The unions had become all powerful –  even in the post Scargill days of the early nineties and I was appalled at the inability of local managers to, well, manage without the say so of the local union rep. Clearly things were out of kilter. Only today, we see evidence that the unions are not averse to the same behaviour as corporations given the opportunity themselves. However, on the flip side, someone working for what was then British Rail had back-up if they needed it and I would still advocate joining one for that reason. Even now, a decade and a half after privatisation the rail industry employee enjoys terms and conditions much more favourable than I have been encountering recently –  providing one is an employee and not a subcontractor. A subbie can be expected to work excessive hours and ignore safety systems if the main contractor demands it, or not be asked back. This is still an ongoing problem the industry faces and one I have witnessed first hand.

Not so long ago, during one of these discussions Angry Exile stated that employers should be allowed to do pretty much as they please –  after all, they are paying the wages. This is something that you would expect a libertarian to say. However, unbridled freedom ultimately leads to the enslavement of the weak by the powerful. Those satanic mills, clichéd though they are, are a consequence of that unchecked behaviour.

Last October, I witnessed an employer insist that people work twelve hours a day for six days a week or face disciplinary action. Should the employer be allowed to do this? Not least that they were blatantly exploiting the EU directive on working hours. It is law, whether we like it or not. However even if it wasn’t law, we have the matter of fatigue to consider –  and drivers who are fatigued are a menace to themselves and others. The employer still has a common law duty of care not to cause harm to employees and anyone who may be affected by his enterprise. Therefore, I do not accept that this was okay. The employer should not have the unbridled right to impose whatever he likes upon employees. Their dime does not entitle them to cause harm.

The contract of employment should be equitable to both parties. It should result in a mutually acceptable symbiotic relationship between the two. However, who writes it? Who is deciding who benefits and how?

Oh, yeah…

When has an employee ever been involved in the drafting of the contract to which he is expected to put his name? Maybe if he is a contractor, but otherwise it’s a one way street. If the employer is reasonable –  as most are –  then likely as not, there will be no complaints. In all my years, I have rarely had to complain about working conditions. It has only been recently when working through agencies or most recently stacking shelves that I have faced the dark side of employment regimes.

I am presently discussing my working hours with my current employer. One night on, one night off throughout the week is playing havoc with my circadian rhythms. When I was asked if there was anything that isn’t working for me during a one-to-one, I pointed this out. The response was pretty much the libertarian one –  “well, you took the job”. So I did. I was claiming jobseekers allowance at the time and facing certain insolvency, having been out of work for a year, so, yes, I took it (although, to be sure, this is strictly a temporary arrangement form my point of view). I had no choice. Had there been any choice in the matter whatsoever, I wouldn’t have touched it with the proverbial barge pole.

Still, at least they asked. They just didn’t like the response, although, to be fair to them, they are looking into changing the pattern so speaking up has a benefit sometimes. This shift pattern most likely came about as a consequence of a series of personnel changes leaving some odd gaps. Cock up rather than conspiracy, as it were. However, the effect on shift worker fatigue was foreseeable and they shouldn’t have been too surprised when I raised it. But, please, please do not regale me with “you had a choice.” Hobson’s choice is no choice. The current state of the economy is enabling such behaviour –  precisely because the prospective employee cannot tell them where to stick their terms and conditions. The relationship therefore is unbalanced. We effectively have an unfair contract.

Still, I digress a little if merely to illustrate that employers when looking after their own interest are prepared to cause others harm –  if they can get away with it. It is, in part, why we now have a plethora of law. If employers didn’t build slag heaps that crush nearby schools, for example we wouldn’t have to have the dead hand of the state wielding its coercive behaviour on employers. And, of course, politicians being politicians will always want another problem to solve, so once they have brought in one law they are looking to see where the next one will fit.

Perhaps what disappoints me most is that libertarians who see this behaviour from the state and roundly condemn it, will happily give businesses a free pass when they behave in exactly the same manner. The use of might to bully the little guy is wrong whoever is doing it and a basic understanding of human nature tells us that there will always be those who will try it on. So, no, employers shouldn’t be able to do exactly as they please. Their right to engage in their business does not include the right to cause harm to their employees –  or others. J S Mill gave us that principle.

So, we are back to where that line is drawn…

20 comments for “Employers, Exploitation and Liberty

  1. Paul
    July 24, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    A pubic body? Not sure I’d like to work for one of those…

    • July 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm

      Oops! Typo alert. Ahem 😳

  2. Edgar
    July 24, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    “Someone earning more than you as a consequence of his entrepreneurial skill is not exploitation.”

    That depends on how much more they earn, and whether the wages they pay are decent. The idea that some guy had an idea and made a business out of it, therefore the working people should support him in luxury for the rest of his life is grotesque.

    • July 24, 2011 at 4:57 pm

      I don’t have a problem with that. His capital, his idea, he makes a killing. Providing the employment contract is equitable – i.e. a fair wage for the work done, then good luck to him, I say. That’s his reward for taking the initial risk – and, doubtless long hours for piss-poor pay when getting the business going.

    • Andrew
      July 24, 2011 at 5:27 pm

      “That depends on how much more they earn, and whether the wages they pay are decent. The idea that some guy had an idea and made a business out of it, therefore the working people should support him in luxury for the rest of his life is grotesque.”


      I employ people. I don’t force them to work for me. But by doing so they help me make more money, and they earn some for themselves too. If I didn’t pay enough, they’d go elsewhere.

      Why should the amount I earn be limited by what they earn?

      • July 24, 2011 at 6:20 pm

        The only point I’d pick up on here is the “going elsewhere” bit. If we had full employment they would have that luxury. As it is, people don’t.

        I stopped short of employing people when my business reached that point where I was struggling to keep up with work some years back. As it was, not employing anyone was probably the right thing for me at the time.

        My issue here is about fair contracts and not taking the piss. Which, unfortunately, some employers do. The consequence is that all employers face a plethora of law and bureaucracy.

        • Andrew
          July 24, 2011 at 6:34 pm

          “The only point I’d pick up on here is the “going elsewhere” bit.”

          I only use graphic designers, everything else I do myself. And there’s no shortage of jobs for them.

          I take 100% responsibility for my life. I ask for nothing. And I certainly never beg, demand or threaten for anything.

          I know lots of people who say they hate their job, they deserve more money, etc. I only know two people who did something about. One’s a successful sports journalist doing what he loves. The other’s me.

          Everyone else I know has chosen to do nothing about their situation. I’m not sure how that’s got anything *at all* to do with me and how I treat my employees.

          In life you, and only you, can decide whether you want to be a winner or loser.

          Most go for loser, simply through the default of not raising a single finger to improve their lot.

          And that’s fine. But they needn’t come begging to me.

          • July 24, 2011 at 6:40 pm

            I wouldn’t argue with that. It’s why for much of my working life, I’ve been self-employed. It hasn’t worked out this time, though. There just isn’t the work out there. As is always the case during recessions, training gets junked first along with advertising.

            In the meantime, I have no option but to take what’s available, pick myself up and start over. However, I have been appalled at the cavalier attitude towards employee health, safety and welfare exhibited at this end of the market. And, let’s be fair, not everyone has the ability to go out and do it for themselves.

            I won’t be here for very long, mark my words…

          • Andrew
            July 24, 2011 at 8:10 pm

            Can’t see the reply button for your post!?

            Thankfully the recesion didn’t affect me at all. And I work in advertising, specifically direct response marketing. But the clients I work with understand that it’s all about ROI. If you cut marketing you directly cut profits. So during a recession you need to advertise more, and you’ll not only maximize your profits you’ll take market share from those dumb enough to reduce, or scrap, their marketing budget.

            If their wasn’t work available for me, and there wasn’t going to be for a while. I’d just look at acquiring another skill set so I could move into a market where there was money to be made.

            And you’re right, not everybody does have what it takes to go out there and make a success of themselves. A small percentage of the population are to mentally/physically disabled to cope on their own. And these people do need help. If I didn’t have a fortune stolen off me and given to “charity” by the state I’d be more than happy to make large, regular donations to try and give them a decent quality of life.

            Almost everyone else is being hampered by a completely and utterly worthless education system that’s purely designed to produce worker drones.

            And state regulation keeps unemployment up and helps act as a barrier to entry for small start-ups in a variety of markets.

            I don’t see the state as the solution. I see it as the problem. The “satanic mills” are a stage of progress that all countries go through (see sweatshops for the current example). As the country, or region, becomes more successful conditions improve. When the state tries to force improvement it impedes progress, thus slowing down real improvement for all.

          • July 24, 2011 at 9:49 pm

            Andrew – that is because there seems to be a limit to how far comments will nest. it’s a bit annoying.

          • Paul
            July 24, 2011 at 10:12 pm

            Is there a WP hack/workaround for this? WP is used by hundreds of thousands of people, most likely, so this should be something that can easily be sorted out.

  3. john in cheshire
    July 24, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Longrider, we probably have more in common than you might believe.

    • July 24, 2011 at 6:15 pm

      Why wouldn’t I believe that? I usually agree with your comments.

  4. July 24, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    However, unbridled freedom ultimately leads to the enslavement of the weak by the powerful.

    Yes – it comes back to classic liberalism every time – freedom with responsibility.

  5. Paul
    July 24, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    James Higham: Yes – it comes back to classic liberalism every time – freedom with responsibility.

    Does that include a sense of civic responsibility to the vulnerable and those who can’t look after themselves? I have been thoroughly turned off the arguments of more dogmatic libertarians, but classical liberalism seems like a fantastic system to live under.

    • July 24, 2011 at 11:33 pm

      Does that include a sense of civic responsibility to the vulnerable and those who can’t look after themselves?

      I would say most certainly. Someone with Parkinsons, old and doddery, MS etc. – genuine cases. I think almost anyone would concede they need some assistance and I, for one, am happy for a percentage of my tax to go to these genuine cases.

      Against that are those gaming the system. The answer is surely somewhere in between.

  6. July 25, 2011 at 1:15 am

    Somehow I missed this one. The flipside of unionism is one you touched on, where the unions become corporatist themselves. Possibly worse is when they become more like the old Guilds and use their might to raise barriers to entry of new workers, which in turn gives them leverage over employers. Would I say they shouldn’t be allowed to do this? Weeeeell, no – it’s freedom of association after all, and some libertarian I’d be if I went round saying people couldn’t form associations as they please. I don’t know an easy answer to that except to remind both lots that they’d each be better off if they spent more effort on producing and less on trying to screw each other.

    As for the employer who wanted everyone to work 12 hour shifts despite the working time regulations (which are double edged in that they prevent someone who wishes to work those shifts from doing so), presumably it breached the contracts too. IANAL but I’m pretty sure you can’t contract for something which is not legal. In any case that seems exactly the sort of exploitation that unionism evolved to deal with. I’ve been in a similar situation years ago and got dropped in it – a 36 hour shift that I had no choice but to do even though I refused to do more than the 12 hours on each end that I was actually down for because it wasn’t unionised and I needed them to come and get me after the first 12. They had me over a barrel and made use of it, and in the short term they won. In the not very much longer term they lost because I walked out as soon as I got paid, and they suddenly had rather more than 12 hours to cover. I got considerable pleasure out of listening to their promises of how ever many days of double bubble to make up for it and then giving them the flick anyway. I wasn’t well off and I had to find something else sharpish, and if things had been a bit tighter obviously I’d have done that first and then told them where to go, but the main reason why companies think they can get away with treating employees like shit is because employees so often take it. Unilateral rewriting of contracts is a particular common and egregious example, and again I’ve left a job where my job description was so radically altered that it was a totally new job with the same name and I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy it. Harder to say in economically tough times, I know, but more people should try it. How long can a company last if it simply can’t keep employees?

    When has an employee ever been involved in the drafting of the contract to which he is expected to put his name? Maybe if he is a contractor, but otherwise it’s a one way street.

    And that’s about the best advert for contracting you could make. There’s no reason everybody couldn’t do it except that so many people go to work for fairly large companies and just take whatever conditions are in the contract on the chin. When have they ever been involved in the drafting of the contract is a fair question, but so is ‘How many have ever asked?’ Perhaps that should be the New Year’s Resolution of everyone who’s employed by someone else – next time you change jobs try to change something in the contract, even if it’s something small you don’t even care about, just to see if you can. Otherwise it might as well be an EULA.

    • July 25, 2011 at 9:34 am

      Agree absolutely.

  7. Andrew Duffin
    July 25, 2011 at 10:21 am

    “If employers didn’t build slag heaps that crush nearby schools…”

    I think you’ll find that was the National Coal Board, ie the State itself.

    • July 25, 2011 at 10:25 am

      Indeed so. However, the state is also an employer. In this case, they used the poacher to turn gamekeeper.

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