Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Strikes and ignorance.

Blaming labour disruption on lack of economic awareness amongst workers.

Of all of the volumes of comment and statements regarding the disturbing industrial action of the past few weeks, one that comes close to the heart of the matter was from well-known labour authority, Andrew Levy. He told the eNCA TV news channel that the wide gap between the parties in negotiations could be attributed to the “appalling” lack of economic awareness among workers.

Many will be tempted to deride Levy’s response as stating the obvious. This poses the question whether if it is so self-evident, why was it not addressed many years ago? Why, as Levy rightfully points out, has information in the workplace been hi-jacked by an ideologically driven Union movement to subject recipients to what he called “propaganda”?

And there’s the first problem. Our entire national economic debate is still firmly held in the stranglehold of severely out-dated cold-war ideological rhetoric on both sides; much of it based on highly questionable assumptions that inform the debate from the lowest levels of economic awareness in frenzied mobs to the highest in hallowed halls of academia.

Far from settling the ideological divide once and for all, the collapse of the Berlin Wall led to some critical re-examination of the key tenets of capitalism itself, which gained momentum after the financial crash some five years ago. The “crisis of capitalism” is now a familiar topic in many authoritative discussions and news media headlines and the merits of a tainted system are not so easy to sell any more.

The other question which is posed by Levy’s postulate is what has company leadership been doing to address this shortcoming? The appalling lack of economic awareness in the workplace was a key factor that prompted me to leave a well-established broadcasting career and establish a “developmental” employee communications consultancy more than 20 years ago. At that time I not only had to sell the critical need for information sharing, but faced great resistance to openness and transparency. Since then we have had the King recommendations, sustainability reporting, integrated reports, vastly advanced communication techniques, and internet media that negate many of the excuses of cost and distribution difficulties of that time.

Despite the consultancy’s success as a business venture, it clearly failed to make much difference in solving the awareness problem itself. That ran into prejudicial issues such as employee rights to information versus shareholder rights. Many a time we had to couch critical information, (even in harmless formats such as the Value-added statement or Contribution account) into averages and indices because of their “privileged nature.” Today still, these critical formats are relegated to complex and brief coverage in the occasional sustainability or integrated reports.

Internal communications are largely geared to enhancing empathy with shareholder interests and the paramountcy of capital. Despite the unassailable logic that labour is a substantial, in many cases the biggest, contributor to the creation of wealth, companies seem simply unable to express it as anything else but a cost and a drag to profits.

Of course, the Union movement itself plays a significant role in ensuring that this expression is maintained by relying on a “commodity” definition of labour where the price is not guided purely by supply and demand for skills, experience and qualifications, but by negotiation, collective collusion, industrial action, extortion and “rights”.

This inevitably draws the workplace into a conflict between wages and profits – a divide that simply has to fall back onto counter-productive ideological paradigms. In the process, both sides ignore one simple truism – that their true value is not determined by what they own or even what they do, but by the contribution that that ownership or activity makes to others – to society as a whole, or more specifically their markets.

That is what being market driven is about. It is not the same as being profit driven – indeed the opposite. Being market driven means being driven by the needs and wants of others; being profit driven means being driven by your own needs and wants. The same goes for being wage driven.

There are many questionable assumptions that form an impenetrable barrier to industrial harmony in South Africa and I have regularly challenged them in much of my writing over the years. In avoiding repetition, I will return to only one I have touched on above and that deals with the need to find a common purpose in any collaborative economic activity.

Common purpose by its very nature can never be found in the rewards of participation, especially if the rewards of one can detract from that of another. It can only be found in contribution, the product or service that that economic activity is offering to society.

Therein lies the very essence of tangible wealth creation itself – the result of adding value to people’s lives. Any collective that constructs itself primarily on getting, on wealth distribution rather than on wealth creation, is doomed to simmering and eventual unbridled outbursts of conflict.

The importance of and dedication to that principle is the only palatable and valid base for information sharing and economic awareness in the workplace. But awareness implies much more than knowledge and information. It also implies empathy, understanding and commitment.

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