Business: ethics need to be placed at the fore

2012-09-28 00:00

PROFESSOR Martin Prozesky is well-known as an expert on ethics. He and Ingrid Roberts are collaborating on a programme by which they hope to sensitise people, businesspeople in particular, to the complexities of ethics in a multicultural society. In a discussion about this, I wondered just how much ethics and morality are affected by culture.

In fact, Prozesky showed that at the core of every religious culture in the world, lies a set of values that are common to all.

Then there is the question of context, which relates to both historical time (what was considered abhorrent 50 years ago, is often quite acceptable now) and circumstance.

Following an enjoyable spell working for two banks on the Isle of Man, my daughter moved to Dubai where, having got married and settled, she decided that she would like to pursue a banking career. She was employed by an international bank, but soon found it a frustrating experience. Women have little chance of advancement in that society, and her paltry salary hardly made the daily commute to and from work worthwhile. Thoroughly disillusioned, she gave it up. I thought it would be interesting to match the vision and mission of this particular bank with its employment practices in Dubai. As expected, its website announced very proudly that it respected human rights and gender equity, and, indeed, all the other good things that characterise company veneers. But, when in Rome ...

Just recently, in the wake of the terrible tragedy of Marikana, an international mining analyst gave an interview on SAfm. He referred to Australia as being the most advanced country in the world in terms of its mining sector. Workers are well-treated, adequately paid and, more importantly, comfortably housed and looked after. Safety levels are admirably high. By comparison, in terms of worker care, mines in South Africa still exhibit some of the worst examples. Few meaningful attempts to address the ills of migrant labour, awful living conditions in hostels and wages perceived to be poor (one wonders how poor) characterise the industry here. The point made by the analyst was that in several cases it was the same companies responsible for the mining in Australia and South Africa (not Lonmin, by the way, which does not have operations in Australia as far as I can tell). In these instances, context has trumped values, it seems. Fair and careful treatment of workers is different from one country to another, despite the fact that mines in both are accessing the same market in which commodity prices do not differentiate between the two. I’m not sure that values should ever be subservient to context.

Of course, for those of us who rely on the media for information, we don’t really understand what is involved in this stand-off with its power-keg dangers. Before their settlement with management, workers bandied about the magical figure of R12 500, but this needed careful examination. Somewhere I read that many mine workers are paid five-digit monthly wages, but by the time the garnishees are honoured, this is greatly reduced. In this age, particularly, it’s what goes into one’s pocket at the end of the month that counts, and in this mindset, no deductions are justifiable. One group of miners went on strike over R69 a month that was deducted for a funeral policy, claiming there had not been any consultation. I think one would find that this was made clear to all employees in terms of their employment conditions and was not considered a topic for consultation. Another group, I read, is demanding that their bonuses should be free of tax.

I recognise in all this a significant amount of ignorance: workers who do not understand employment and wages (perhaps the same ones who thought a potion from a witchdoctor would make them disappear), employers who don’t understand enough about their workers and the conditions in which they live and work, and a public that is ignorant because of reporting that doesn’t unpack the issues fully and accurately.

Some say that the government should be doing more; others say the companies must do more; yet others say the unions must do more, but we should all do more, it seems to me, to place greater value in honesty and fairness, and to be consistent about it.

Andrew Layman

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