Eric Schneiderman, New York’s AG, is bringing a case against some retailers for their questionable employee-related practices. The power of businesses to cut their costs and their pursuit of efficiency has evolved into a grotesque practice of “on call shifts” where the employees don’t know whether or when they will be called to work, therefore making it impossible for them to make any plans or even to know whether or not they will be able to pay bills. I guess the cost-cutting business majors “geniuses” at those companies just made an assumption that if an employee is not called to come to work on Saturday at, say 2pm, he will then turn around and just find another hourly job that’s just sitting and waiting for him to turn to, at a moment’s notice. Or, that while tending a McDonald’s counter, he’s incessantly checking his Blackberry to see if the instructions came in to drop it and be at a Gap location in a half hour. I wonder how much more businesses can squeeze out of their employees, all in the name of efficiency? And when will we stop worship this kind of “entrepreneurship”? So, kudos to Schneiderman here.
I wanted to expand on this. The goal of businesses, which is profit, has reached such a revered and celebrated status, and we’re so captivated with this notion, that we’re unable to put things into perspective. What if a business can’t turn a profit without dehumanizing and shortchanging its workforce? What if it’s built in the very business model? Here we, as a society, tacitly acknowledge that profit is a more virtuous and legitimate pursuit than the welfare of employees and customers, or in other words, citizens. (Welfare in a sense of mutually beneficial outcome, not ‘government dependency’ as this word has evolved to represent over the years). So then what is the function of state in this case? To protect profits or to protect citizens? Let’s leave politics aside and look at it from a purely philosophical perspective. The existence of businesses is only as good as their contribution to the welfare of society, while also turning a profit. But profit should not be a sole defining and absolving factor of a business’ legitimacy: if it can’t turn a profit without shortchanging employees, without tricking its customers, without dumping shit on its neighbors, without undermining political processes then such a business’ moral dominance in the current zeitgeist (which is: businesses are more important than people because businesses give people jobs) should be questioned. “Don’t touch businesses” we’re told, “or they will take their toys and go home, leaving us all unemployed.” I say not necessarily. Because if a businessman’s choice is between earning a 6% margin by screwing his employees and earning 5% by giving them some breathing room, then he will take the latter option rather than closing up shop. (I mean, what he’s gonna do, put his money in a bank and sit on it? Haha!) And if his margins are so thin that giving his employees breathing room will put him in a negative territory then such business model is simply unsustainable and he has to find another line of business.