As the Lords’ votes on “shares for rights” for the last time, Tom Morrison-Bell argues that the proposal is immoral.
The great Indian polymath, Rabindranath Tagore wrote in 1917 that “the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the political and the commercial man, the man of limited purpose. This is assuming gigantic proportion and power, causing the upset of man’s moral balance, obscuring his human side under the shadow of soulless organization.” In his relentless drive for growth and deficit reduction, George Osborne is showing himself as this “political” and “commercial man”. The recent rights-for-shares scheme is a startling example of this government’s desire to place economic values above human values and its belief that all things are suited to market valuation.
In his recent book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’, Michael Sandel argues that “certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold for money”. The purpose of labour rights is to ensure the decent and dignified treatment of employees, protecting us from potentially unfair and unjust actions. These are their moral value. If you sell them, does it then make it just to ‘unfairly’ dismiss someone from their job or prevent them from claiming redundancy?
Of course, the response will be that an individual chose to waive these rights – they gave their consent – but this doesn’t wash. While it might be acceptable in the private sphere to give consent to be treated in an unjust manner, this wouldn’t work in the public sphere and labour rights belong to the public sphere. Rights are conferred by legitimate social institutions, namely the justice system. A core element of the legitimacy of the justice system is that it shows equal concern for those in society. Once certain individuals sell their employment rights, the justice system is no longer able to do so as some people, quite literally, become more equal than others. Selling your rights, then, actually undermines the justice system itself as it is unable to perform the very thing it is meant to do – it is corrupted. Bringing market valuation onto labour rights corrupts not only the rights themselves but also the justice system itself. Labour rights, are not the kinds of things admit of market valuation, no matter how much the political and commercial man may wish this.
‘Shares for rights’ threatens to undermine the very core of the just treatment of individuals. By making rights commodities, the moral man further gives way to the political and commercial man and obscures our human side.