What Does an Employer Owe His Employees?

Last weekend, my family ate breakfast at the Mother’s Market & Kitchen near our house.  My wife’s diet has become increasingly organic – which is to say that my diet has become increasingly organic (for the better! thank you, dear!) – and Mother’s offers a wide variety of selections in that regard.  As we browsed the market afterwards, I became intrigued by some claims printed on a package of “socially responsible” brownies.  In addition to offering “lifetime employment” to the brownie-makers, the package explained that its products were all made by hand, because no one should have to suffer the indignity of telling his family his job was replaced by a machine.  (I could not find the exact language on the company’s website, but that is a pretty close paraphrase of what appears on the package.)  Notably, there was no claim that hand-made brownies taste better or are more nutritious than if cost-reducing equipment were used.  Just that that equipment might cause redundancies, which apparently should be avoided at all costs.

While this is well-meaning and all, this is not the way an employer fulfills his moral obligations to his employees.  Some of those obligations include providing a reasonably safe work environment, dealing honestly, not engaging in arbitrary and irrational discrimination or abusive behavior, and so on.  I would also argue that an employer has a moral obligation to provide his employees with meaningful work.  What might constitute meaningful work is open to discussion, but I would argue at the very least it means providing work that has value – in other words, the employees’ labor results in products or services that people are willing to pay for.

But it must mean a bit more than that.  If I can provide those products or services to consumers at a better price by making proper use of reasonably available resources, I have an obligation to do that, too.  The steady march of human progress and civilization has made available a wide array of technology, equipment, financing, processes, and the like.  There is no reason my customers should not share in the benefits of these advances by enjoying the products and services I provide as efficiently and inexpensively as these modern advances reasonably allow.  Indeed, my customers include the engineers, scientists, financiers, etc. that help to make these cost-reducing resources available to me.

Forgoing these efficiencies violates my moral obligations to both my workers and my customers.  It deprives employees of the ability to engage in work that is as meaningful and productive as reasonably possible.  And it deprives customers of products and services that, because of the feats of liberalism that we all work hard to protect, should be offered much more efficiently and inexpensively.

A canal dug with shovels (or spoons) instead of modern equipment cheats both the workers and those who had to wait longer and pay more to use it.  The same basic idea goes for brownies, too.

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at gmail.com.

16 Comments

  1. Obviously, I’m against Luddites. The use of labor-saving machinery is at least as much aimed at increasing productivity as it is aimed at reducing labor expenses. Historically, more people worked in manufacturers who industrialized than less.

    Anyway, I’m not entirely sure that’s what is going on with this manufacturer. I don’t see anywhere on the website that he’s opposed to the use of labor-saving machinery, and even if he is, a lot of consumers read an implication of superior quality into a representation that a product is hand-made.

    • I should have taken a photo of the package. Handmade tastes better was a pitch i would have been ready for. Handmade because it saves jobs struck me as noteworthy.

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