David has a small factory that specialises in swatching. ‘It’s Curtains for You’ makes sets of samples of materials that are used for blinds and curtains. Manufacturers need sample swatches in the shops so customers can order materials. When importing new fabrics they need to place their offerings before customers quickly and are prepared to pay well for the speedy making of swatches.
Previously, David has employed a mix of permanent, permanent part time workers and casual employees. The demand for swatches is not constant and depends on the launching of new fabrics and styles. At times the factory works for twelve hours a day and at other times it is fairly quiet.
David has decided that it is in the best interests of his company to convert most of the part-time positions into casual positions. The increased wage they receive is offset by the fact that there is no need to make provision for holidays, superannuation or sick leave. Some workers have complained that they will no longer have job security and cannot budget and plan their lives. They have no holiday pay, sick pay or superannuation. They are completely dependent on David’s goodwill for each day’s work.
David says the business cannot afford to pay workers to play cards when the factory is having a quiet time. He maintains that he provides work, and that some work is better than no work. He points out that he pays them a significantly higher hourly rate because they are casuals. Moreover he has resisted suggestions that he move the factory offshore, perhaps to China, and make more profit. David is proud to provide work for Australians.
Is this arrangement fair to the workers?
Is it fair to the owners of small businesses like David?
What are the ethical implications of this arrangement?
Finding The Facts
The Australian Bureau of Statistics
The Australian Bureau of Statistics site gives an indication of just how much the casual workforce has increased in the last decade, and provides some definitions of terms used in the debate. Information on casual work loading and conditions surrounding termination of employment are provided with other information on the Working Today site.
Casualisation of the Work Force Trends
A pdf document on a site organised by the Institute of Public Affairs—a free market ‘think tank’, sees the trend to casualisation as quite acceptable and even as a positive trend while the ACTU details a different view of the issue. One opinion can be found at Crikey.com which makes the point that casualisation of the work-force could become a crucial political issue in future elections. A policy analystfrom the Centre for Independent Studies which supports a free enterprise position, argues that the union campaigns to reduce working hours and limit casual employment threaten to destroy jobs for low-skilled and low-paid workers
Casual Employment Myths
Casual employment and working hours ‘myths’ are addressed in a research paper by Dr Barbara Pocock. A teacher friendly website is Youth Challenge produced by the Human Rights & Equal Opportunities Commission in 2002. The most relevant section is Unit 3 which concerns young people in the workplace. This provides much material for discussion and written response.
- How would you explain the differences between permanent, casual and part-time work? Use the Think, Puzzle, Explore thinking routine to get you started.
- What are some advantages of casual work to employers, to employees? Present your findings in the form of an advertising poster or an electronic project. Will there always be some kinds of work that will need to be done on a casual basis? What are these?
- Explain why casual jobs have increased substantially in the past ten years.
- Brainstorm some slogans representing the views of both sides of the argument. Make sure you can explain both views.
- Imagine you are a woman working in David’s factory. Explain why you think women form such a substantial percentage of casual workers, and why you are happy or unhappy with his decision to make you casual.
Underlying the issues of ethical employment and remuneration for workers are questions about the relationship between work and rewards for that work, between employer and employee, and between capital and industry.
The industrial revolution of the 18th century caused the most radical upheaval in the history of work and workers. It gave rise to a new manufacturing order that continues to have a massive effect in the world today. The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History, by Stephen Kreis, is an excellent lecture series tracing the history of western thought. Refer to Lecture 17, ‘The Origins of the Industrial Revolution in England‘ to learn about the impact of the industrial age on views of work, wealth and labour. If you are interested in finding out about how such theories affect how we think about economics and politics today, subsequent lectures in this series will help you trace the origins of capitalism and socialism.
Macquarie University’s Open Learning Centre has a good article on the pros and cons of free enterprise.
No discussion of the history of modern political and economic ideas would be complete without reference to Marx’s thought. The above-mentioned History Guide’s introduction to Karl Marx is a challenging read. Another introduction to Marx’s thought tries to put it in the context of the European society in which Marx found himself. Marx was bitterly opposed to the commodification of labour. Ironically and tragically, his ideas led to the commodification of human beings on a grand scale in 20th century Communist dictatorships.
Alex de Tocqueville
Read about the concept of enlightened self interest, an idea enunciated by Alexis de Tocqueville which underlies many movements among both employers and employees. As a result of his observations of American political life, de Tocqueville espoused the idea of working together with others in the same circumstances to obtain advantageous outcomes for all.
Finally, it would be worthwhile looking at the concept of trade unions. In Australia, almost from the beginning of European settlement, there has existed a strong tradition of trade unionism. To find out what a union is and how it empowers individual workers by enabling them to act together visit the website of the NSW Labor Council. Peter Norden SJ, in an article entitled ‘Workers, Unions and the Unemployed’, shows how the union movement accords with the Church’s social teaching (more of that later). Conversely, on the H.R. Nicholl’s site, Joe Thompson AM argues against unionism and in favour of enterprise bargaining as a more effective way of managing relationships between employers and employees.
- Compare Adam Smith’s idea of the role of the worker with that of Karl Marx. What is similar? What is different?
- Imagine Peter Norden and Joe Thompson having a drink together after work. What might they say to each other? What points of agreement would there be between them? On what points would they differ?
- What is the difference between self interest and ‘enlightened’ self interest? Explore these concepts by role playing some examples of people acting in both ways.
- Are trade unions an outcome of the concept of enlightened self interest? Why or why not?
- Imagine a conversation between Alexis de Tocqueville, former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard and Labor MP (former ACTU secretary) Greg Combet.
- Use the Does it Fit? thinking routine to sort out an ideal solution to the competing claims of employers and employees.
Exploring Sacred Texts
The unfolding narrative of the early chapters of Genesis convey a sense of what the relationship between human beings and work is intended to be. The rhythm of work and rest is already established in the story of God’s work of creation, both between the days in Chapter One and at week’s end in Chapter Two.
Garden of Eden
In Genesis 2, it is interesting to note that Adam is actually created before God plants the garden which is given to him to tend. The implication is that work is for human beings, not human beings for work; human beings are not to be defined by their work. Yet the fact that God gives the garden to Adam and instructs him to work it shows also that work is natural to human beings and was not meant to be unduly wearying or burdensome. (A short article entitled We all have work to do comments briefly on the biblical understanding of work in both Genesis and Exodus). After the Fall of Adam and Eve, who are representatives of all humanity, God’s original plan for human labour was perverted. Work, like every other aspect of human life, was affected by sin and henceforth it is by the ‘sweat of his brow‘ that Adam makes his way in the world. The consequences of this are spelled out in the rivalries and conflicts, jealousy and envy, detailed in the ancient stories of Genesis.
The book of Exodus dramatises the depths to which work relationships can sink. The Hebrews, strangers in Egypt and racially and religiously different, are enslaved by their overlords. They are persecuted and without rights, and subject to arbitrary cruelty. The subsequent story shows that God is not indifferent to the plight of these enslaved workers. They are delivered ultimately to their own land where they eat what the land provides for them through their own labour. Gavin Drew reflects on this in his essay, ‘How Then Should We Live?‘, and suggests some implications of this story for those who count the Exodus as part of their spiritual heritage and also looks at the implications of Jesus’ words in the synagogue at Nazareth: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…’
The Gospels show Jesus announcing the reign of God, the signs of which will be the restoration of everything lost by the perversion of God’s original plan for creation. His life and words were devoted to announcing and bringing about the reign of God, especially to those who felt themselves far from it. No reader of the Gospels can fail to see that Jesus directs himself and his message especially to ‘all those who labour and are heavy burdened’.
A simple but apt piece of advice is found in Deut 24:14–15. The industrial relations apparatus generally ensures that in twenty first century Australia most casual workers are at least paid, but this brief extract from Deuteronomy also enjoins a perspective of justice and compassion. These two verses oppose the exploitation of those who are in lesser roles. The fact that people are needy should not mean that they can be treated less well than others. Even enlightened self interest is not sufficient for a Christian employer, he or she must also have as motives the good of the other and responsibility to God.
- After reading some of the extracts referred to, explain the nature and purpose of work as it is envisaged by the biblical writers. Use the Question Starts technique to examine what the Genesis accounts reveal about work and how much they influence Christian thought about work.
- Make a poster illustrating important quotations from scripture on the role and meaning of human work.
- Can you detect in the passages from Genesis and Exodus some of the patterns which still characterise thought and theory about work and work practices?
- The story of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt has been the inspiration behind many struggles for freedom and self-determination. Why do you think this is so?
- It is interesting that one of the parables of the kingdom of God is based on a ‘casual labour’ scenario. What does this parable of the generosity of God have to say to employees and/or to workers?
- Does paying an appropriate wage fulfil the requirements of a Christian employer? Under what circumstances is it enough?Under what circumstances is it inadequate?
Understanding the Catholic Tradition
Australian Bishops Council
Australian Bishops issued a pastoral letter in 2002 to examine some of the problems connected with casual employment. There are a number of Vatican documents relating to the relationships between employers and employees.
Catholic Social Teaching
Read some quotations from Laborem Exercens or Centesimus Annus, which are two of the most influential of the many church documents associated with the social teaching of the church. They are found on an excellent American site which contains an overview of Catholic Social Teaching. This site is a great resource for teachers, with access to major documents, notable quotations and key themes.
The website ‘The Busy Christian’s Guide to Catholic Social Teaching’ also gives a good overview of the history of Catholic thought on social matters. Each of the major documents is summarised and briefly put into context, and an indication of any new lines of thought is given.
Another good Australian site which particularly examines Catholic teaching with regard to employment relations is the ACCER site. Its News section carries an up-to-date file of documents relating to current employment issues in society. This site also features a non-technical glossary of workplace terms. Socio-Economic Polarisation in Australia is discussed in a briefing note on the site of the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes. Just wage issues are discussed in this site which presents Catholic teaching on the matter.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church contains teaching on the nature of work and of justice issues in relation to work in paragraph numbers #2426 to #2436. The Catechism states ‘A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair play both the need and contributions of each person must be taken into account.’
- What are the chief concerns the Australian bishops have about casual work?
- What business does the Church have in the marketplace? Ought bishops or other church leaders speak on social or political issues? Use the Think, Pair, Share routine to help articulate your thoughts on this question.
- Prepare a pamphlet/brochure which sets out the church’s view of the issue of the casualisation of work.
Respecting Other World Views
While general principles of justice and compassion are found in all the great world religions, different economic systems and work practices mean that not all of them have explicit responses to practices and issues which are largely part and parcel of European ‘first world’ work cultures. To get an understanding of the immense difference in issues faced look at an article on women workers in India. The invisible unorganised labour sector runs ninety-two per cent of the Indian economy: ninety-seven per cent of those employed are women, mostly agricultural workers, artisans, loaders, vegetable sellers, sand pickers, gum collectors, rice mill workers and tailors. Over forty-six per cent of workers are casual workers and about thirty-six per cent are unpaid for the tasks they perform.
As you would expect, Judaism—having produced the prophets Amos, Micah and Isaiah—has a strongly developed social focus. Look at the ‘approach to justice’ questions adopted on the Jewish Social Action site as well as a site that discusses the relationship between employers and employees. Markets and Morals by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks outlines the development of jewish thinking in relation to commercial justice.
Business Ethics from an Islamic Perspective and Islamic economics, politics and prosperity are two articles which give an orientation to Islamic thought on workplace, social and economic ethics.
Buddhism and Hinduism
Buddhism and Hinduism, the two great religious traditions of the East, do not have such an explicitly articulated set of social teaching as the three monotheistic faiths, but both have well developed traditions of philanthropy and giving. For short summaries of the ethics of the major world religions from a different perspective look at a Wikipedia site entitled Ethics in Religion.
- Divide into groups of five. Each member of the group chooses one of the world religions and researches its attitude and teaching on the significance of human work, then presents it in turn to the group. They then respond to the question: What is ‘your’ faith’s attitude to work being available only on a casual basis? Each group member could write up the session from their point of view.
- Write a poem or song lyrics which reflect your understanding of the human significance of work. How much does your attitude reflect the cultural, religious and social perspective of your own society? How much is it based on broader notions of justice, equity, decency?
Examining Personal Experience
In this area of ethical thought in particular, personal experience is a key factor. Yet we ought never let our own personal experiences totally dictate our ethical views. After all, on the whole, Australians are economically and socially among the most privileged members of the human race. Simple justice and compassion, and certainly the Gospel of Jesus Christ, demand that we consider also other people. Bearing that in mind, review your own family’s labour and work history. Discover something of the struggle/privilege that has brought your family to where it is at the present time. What personal, communal, political factors have been significant? How does this personal experience relate to the study you have done on the issue of work and labour, and in the course of this unit of study? Is the progressive casualisation of work in the best interest of human beings? Is it ethical?
- Find out the facts.
- Broaden your perspectives.
- Explore the sacred texts.
- Understand the tradition.
- Consider other world views.
- Review your personal experience.
You should be in a good position to articulate your own ethical response.