Business and the Social Contract: What Do We Owe to British Workers?

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“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it”

– George Bernard Shaw

Last week, Conservative business minister Matthew Hancock sparked controversy during an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. When asked whether he believes that a company should train British workers “at the risk of a little bit of profit” rather than employing foreign workers who may be better qualified, Mr Hancock replied: “Yes, yes I do.”

The choice of language utilised by Hancock in the interview is particularly interesting from an ideological perspective. The young minister argued that companies in the UK are burdened with a “social responsibility” and a “social duty” to recruit local workers. The language is somewhat emotive, tying in questions over the moral standards that British companies are expected to uphold. Ascribing “duty” and “responsibilities” to corporations is acknowledging a changing role that they have in British society. For they are no longer self-interested, financially driven organisations. They may now add “upholding the ethical standards of the nation” to their list of priorities, amongst turning a profit and achieving commercial success.

The questions raised here resonate with a theory which became eminent during the 19th century in the commercial sector of the USA- “corporate personhood”. According to this doctrine, corporations may be recognised as individuals in the eyes of the law, in the sense that they can enjoy the same legal rights as people. They may sue, or be sued; they may draw up or sign contracts with each other; and, as Mr Hancock reasons, they may be held accountable for their actions. However, this line of argument has not received the unequivocal support of constitutional scholars and human rights advocates, to name a few. Granting corporations the legal rights of individuals, it is argued, will result in the law and the political body catering to corporate interests at the expense of individuals’ interests. Mr Hancock’s argument therefore paves the way to a larger dispute: are corporations people?

However, the crux of the minister’s argument rests upon the belief that the concept of national identity is a particularly strong one; one which, in fact, ought to be a priority of companies when recruiting. He claims rather controversially that British workers should be employed even if they are less qualified. Nationality should be held in a higher regard than aptitude. However, many flaws can be identified within this argument. Firstly, Mr Hancock seems to be acting dismissively towards meritocracy- arguably the foundation of justice within business. His outright claim that even the better qualified candidates ought to be turned down on the basis that they are not “local” is, at best, discriminatory. Furthermore, his argument equates being well-qualified and apt for a position with being British. According to this reasoning, a British candidate automatically can claim superiority over a foreign candidate, regardless of his or her individual merit. Casting the almost supremacist undertones of this argument aside, it relies on the claim that the concept of a nation is strong one, as opposed to being a chance-based identifier. Hancock’s reasoning falls short of clarifying why a hard-working candidate who, by chance, happened to be born abroad should be at a disadvantage to a British-born candidate.

On the other hand, however, there is a compelling argument to be made as to what it is exactly that companies owe British society at large. The minister’s argument is, likely, based on what companies have benefitted from by setting up shop in the UK, and what they ought to do in order to compensate for this. Companies in the UK will have benefitted from our local business opportunities, our customers, our business protection laws, our national services and the state of our economy. Companies owe a part of their success to the status of the UK; is it not therefore reasonable to expect an investment in our national workforce in return? Is it not fair to ask companies benefitting from our governance and our custom to provide jobs for the British people who helped these companies achieve and retain their commercial success?

The moral responsibilities of companies and corporations have been brought into question increasingly in recent years, with revelations of tax evasion, unethical sourcing and poor working conditions becoming almost ubiquitous. But how far should these responsibilities tie into the issue of national identity?

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