The Living Wage

Living wageI just got back from a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Corporate Responsibility Group, where Boris Johnson was expatiating on the importance of business leaders taking responsibility for paying their staff the living wage.

Johnson is a clever rhetorician. First, he shows how the gap in workplace remuneration has reached new extremes. Then, just as you think he is about to launch into Corbinite egalitarianism he assures you that he is a card carrying one nation Tory, who believes in enterprise and self-interest, boasting of London’s 89 billionaires. Just to spice that up he throws in Mandeville’s fable of the bees, with the message that greed is good. He can’t be serious can he, or can he?  And just as you feel yourself being drawn into a polarized debate he hits you with a triple whammy. First, he notes the importance of social justice, swiftly hurrying on to the next point. Then he refers to the importance of the workforce, and of the need to respect them. Then pausing after the illustration of a firm who paid their workers five pounds an hour, he says firmly and more than once ‘that’s just not right’. Johnson seems be out of the philosophical closet, with a mixture of Rawlsian justice and Kantian respect, repeating and phrases like ‘doing the right thing’.

But just to make sure you don’t get the wrong idea, he quickly reminds you that actually by practising justice and fairness and respecting your workers you will have all the more success. And that business case is what will motivate business leaders to get on board. The case is finally hammered home with the good old liberal argument that above all we must not coerce business leaders.

Freedom is all.

The skill of Mr. Johnson is such that he will draw in the left wingers and shoot them down from the middle, reassure business leaders and his right wingers that he has no intention of disturbing their enterprise, and have the rest of us cheering for his evangelistic call to practice the virtue of justice in the work place.

And the latter is what, amidst all the splendid jokes and banter, I take very seriously about the mayor of London. Ultimately he is urging business leaders to develop self-governance (autonomy) and as a part of that to be responsible for giving an account of justice and its practice in their organizations. We must beware wary of evangelism, after all any judgment about the living wage has to take account of potential job losses.

However, the vision of business leaders practising the virtue of justice seems to me to be worth developing. First, it actually takes us beyond the simplistic liberal position of freedom as freedom from coercion. The real freedom here is about accountability. Can the board make a decent fist of explaining its pay policy? Once you do that you are making a statement about your view of justice and your view of the worth of the members of you organization, and members have a right to expect that. Too often boards fudge the issue with weak attempts simply to justify bonuses and so on. Second, and related, Mr. Johnson is absolutely right, once we ‘coerce’ there is a huge danger of losing the practice of professional virtues. This debate is already bubbling along very nicely around regulation and ‘managerialism’. The evidence is clear; the more we regulate the less professionals practice good judgment and related virtues. This raises the question, how might we supervise autonomy?

Third, then, and this is the big question, how can we hold business to moral account (i.e. non coercive challenge)?  Some would name and shame. But that sounds a lot like psychological/social coercion. I suspect it comes back to dialogue. There needs to be on-going open dialogue, where business leaders give an account to their industry, shareholders and stakeholders of why and how they reward their workforce. Michael Novak argues that this kind of freedom is the freedom to do ones duty. I am not sure that this hits the spot. Autonomy is a much richer notion which includes knowing what we are talking about, and the capacity to give an account of our values and practice to the people who form our network of relationships. In its simplest form, the relationship of parent to child/teenager, it means explaining why we do the things we do and above all not uttering the fateful words, ‘because I say so’.

Yes Mr. Johnson, the living wage is about social justice. Yes, it is about the uncoerced practice of the virtue of justice. And, yes freedom does not involve avoiding an account of our meaning and practice.  On the contrary, freedom is precisely built upon the capacity to give, and hear and appreciate, such an account.

Professor Simon Robinson

Simon is the Director for the Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility at Leeds Beckett University. He focuses on business and professional ethics, the nature and practice of responsibility, responsibility and pedagogy, governance and leadership ethics across all sectors. Running throughout this is a concern about the meaning of responsibility, focused in virtues, ontology, culture and critical dialogue. He is also working on spirituality and leadership.

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