Wednesday 30 August 2017

Ethics, development and worker rights

Worker rights are linked to the contested forces of development, so the process through which exploitation is identified and overcome represents an ethical issue. In my next blog I look at issues raised by the establishment of worker rights norms at supra-national levels (such as the ILO, World Bank lending standards, trade agreements and the SDGs – Sustainable Development Goals), however here I want to look at the social construction of worker rights. Simply defining what lies within the system boundaries of worker rights is highly informative, since it reveals how exploitation is perceived and consequently how issues of worker rights, relative scale of exploitation (at general and specific levels), capacity and power of the worker, relative to the circumstances, to identify, challenge, mitigate and improve their situation. Each aspect represents a value judgement, for which the ethical framework adapted from Forsyth (1980) and Slim (1997) is useful since it highlights how differing views can result in conflict, and how difficult it may be to reconcile the contradictions.

Figure: Ethical analysis based on Forsyth and Slim

Ethical analysis, as shown in the figure, is based on determining the degree to which an individual’s moral views can be ascribed to low or high relativism and idealism. On the x-axis, Absolutists believe that actions are intrinsically right or wrong and can be contrasted to Relativists. On the y-axis, Realists are pragmatic, compared with Idealists who believe that only ethically correct actions will produce desirable outcomes. This produces a frame of four ethical ‘types’, which is further refined by the cross-cutting axes of deontological and teleological ethics that represent the tension between Kantian morality and one in which the ends justify the means. In exploring deontological ethics, I find Immanuel Kant’s deontology of the Categorical Imperative useful. An act is only morally justified if: (1) objectively speaking, the act can be done as if it were a universal law (one that applies everywhere and at all times); and (2) subjectively speaking, the act must be both the means to an end as well as an end in its own right, and (3) practically speaking, accepting (1) and (2) represents an auto-constraint.

As such:
may see worker rights as being subservient to other issues that serve the greater social good (for example, the ILO prohibition on forced labour is not absolute – a State may require it during times of national emergency). Distinguishing between teleological and deontological Exceptionists reveals the extent to which the system of worker rights is seen as part of wider social (i.e. political) goals.
Absolutists may see worker rights as essential to achieving the best outcome for all (and might thus focus on correlations between high levels of worker rights and low levels of inequality, for example through the lens of the Gini coefficient). Distinguishing between teleological and deontological Absolutists reveals the extent to which worker rights are seen as a practical method for achieving this “best outcome” (however defined).
Situationists may see worker rights in ways that are not traditionally understood (such as challenging the social construction of gender that marginalises domestic and care-provider work). Distinguishing between teleological and deontological Situationists reveals the extent to which worker rights may be harnessed to serve the strategic interest of breaking the tradition. 
With Subjectists, the distinction between teleological and deontological ethics becomes critical. A teleological Subjectist may not see worker rights as useful, unless these represent a means to achieve specific end. Deontological Subjectists may see worker rights as an ultimate moral duty, irrespective of any consequences.

In six of these eight ethical scenarios, worker rights serve either as the means to or as a component of wider social standards. Contentious issues revolve around interpretation (e.g.: does this national emergency warrant recourse to forced labour), enforcement (e.g.: how should worker rights reduce gender disparity in pay), or scope (e.g.: are worker rights appropriate to addressing the needs of different institutional contexts, such as informal work).  Furthermore, the lenses of interpretation, enforcement and scope allow the exploration of issues and values raised earlier, starting with the perception of exploitation.

The seventh ethical scenario of the teleological Subjectist may fit with certain commercial interests whereby worker rights receive superficial consideration (e.g.: part of a corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan), to be disregarded in an effort to maximise profit. Contrast this to the eighth ethical scenario of the deontological Subjectist who, by placing worker rights on a pedestal, disregards their limitations (e.g.: a consequence may be seen by the dramatic reduction in Western trade union membership since the 1980’s).   

These last two ethical scenarios are interesting because of what they reveal about the institutions surrounding both work and rights and the historical development of modern worker rights norms at the supra-national level, which is for the next blog posting.

Forsyth, D. (1980), cited by Forsyth, D., ‘A Theory of Ethics Positions’, in ‘Studying Our Social World’, Blogpost, available at: [online], accessed on: 29th August 2017
Slim, H. (1997) ‘Doing the Right Thing: Relief Agencies, Moral Dilemmas and Moral Responsibilities in Political Emergencies and War’, Centre for Development and Emergency Practice, Oxford Brookes University, Disasters, Vol. 21(3), pp.244-257

Thursday 17 August 2017

Starting out

"What is the point of worker rights if these simply aren't enforced?" I've been asked this question in many different forms on multiple occasions, usually while conducting workshops for worker activists, and most frequently in relation to Convention rights established by the International Labour Organization (ILO). My usual response was to ask how many people in the room actually obeyed the speed limit while driving (typically nobody) and then get discussion going as to why certain laws are generally obeyed and others not. What becomes very clear is how social values have a direct bearing on the who, what, when, where, why and how of rights and their enforcement. And this perspective has an immediate and powerful effect. For a right to mean something it must be understood and claimed as a norm through human agency, part of the 'rules of the game'. Just as words reify meaning through which we socially construct our reality, rights underpin institutions. When a right looses its meaning, the institution upon which it is built risks becoming less than the sum of its parts. Since many societies distinguish between those who do, and those who do not enjoy worker rights (often identified as 'formal' and 'informal' work), an inherent contradiction exists within that institution, which this blog seeks to explore. 

Having recently completed an MSc in Development Management at the UK's Open University, a process that allowed me to reflect upon my experiences working as a worker rights activist and later as a programme director for a small international NGO, I am looking for the best ways in which to continue my engagement with the world of development and specifically how to help struggling communities in claiming their equitable share of economic development. Through blogging, my aim is to publicly set out my opinions, thoughts and views, and to invite comments, questions, as well as highlight areas for further exploration and discussion. In so doing, I hope to start a conversation with as broad a range of people as possible, in the hope of 'turning together', from the Latin roots of com "with, together" and versare "to turn". In discussing worker rights, there is a potential that these blogs may be used by those who do not share my values, or that my work may directly or indirectly harm the process of improving worker rights. So to increase the opportunities for conflict to be constructive and so transformative, my next posting aims to explore the ethical framework I intend to use.

In addition to the theory, through this blog I also want to explore the practical aspects of getting back to the coalface - that is becoming directly and personally involved with people who are struggling for their rights and what mutual and co-dependent learning is taking place. This has three basic, yet interrelated dimensions: with and for whom, in what organisational context, and where and when? The first question has a straightforward answer - for the time being, I would like to continue working with migrant workers in Morocco. There are some organisational forms that facilitate this, such as continuing as an independent (and auto-financed) consultant, or setting up a charitable organisation (which would require considerable new learning) to raise funds. The questions where and when are directly linked to the issues arising from the second and the solutions found. 

Stay tuned!

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