Monday, June 24, 2013

The nice capitalist Joe


How many times have you heard the familiar line that employers are evil and that they exploit their employees? I have heard it may times, but I am yet to find evidence to support this claim as a general rule. On the other hand, during all of my experience as an employee, I have found ample evidence to the contrary--that employers constantly look for ways to improve the work conditions, if for no other reason, then for the sake of keeping their employees from going to some other employer with better work conditions.

Let's not forget that employers work on two fronts: (1) they are trying to attract consumers to buy their products by making products better than the competitors' products, and (2) they are trying to attract employees by offering better work conditions than the competitors.

I don't need to search much to find an antithesis to the myth about evil capitalists that exploit their employees. I find one of the best examples in one of my former employers. He (let's call him Joe) was running a construction site clean-up business at the time. The work conditions weren't great, but they were good enough to keep us from looking for work elsewhere. We worked in teams of two. Each team had an old pick up truck that was falling apart, several plastic buckets, two shovels, and a few brooms. We picked up and cleaned all the construction site crap no one wanted to touch.

The work was hard but the guys were fun. We didn't really care that our truck was falling apart, or that we had rudimentary tools and iffy safety conditions. What we cared about was that no one bosses us around and that we get paid. And that's what we got. If we did a good job, we would get called to come back tomorrow to the same construction site. If we didn't do a good job, Joe would have to find some other site. Since we didn't want to hear Joe's nagging about how hard it is to find a good site, we tried to do a good job, and we generally did. When we didn't, it was because we hated the site manager more than Joe's nagging. However, we knew that Joe's efforts would not be limitless and that, at some point, he would rather fire an employee than try to keep finding new sites for him.

To an outside observer, superficial examination of our work conditions would probably indicate that we were being exploited by our boss or by the construction companies that were using our services. It is only a little step between seeing "injustice" being done to employees and asking the government or the courts to do something about this "injustice." In our case, we were smart enough not to ask that the "injustice" be fixed. First, we didn't see any injustice happening, and, second, even if we asked for better work conditions, we probably wouldn't get them because then the whole business wouldn't be profitable.

Joe now owns a restaurant. I love to go there once in a while with my family. Besides the great food, friendly staff and the pleasant atmosphere, it is always nice to see Joe. He always stops to talk to me and my wife for a while and to play with our kids. He never misses to ask how things are at the university and never misses to say he is glad when things are going well. Although I never said it to Joe, I think he knows I am glad his business provided the first money and self esteem to jump start all the good things that happened afterwards in my life.

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