We as humans have the capacity to create complex structures or institutions to organize ourselves. These structures can and do relate to virtually every dimension of our lives.
Of these structures, none is more pervasive and intrusive in a human being’s life than the way we organize ourselves economically according to ideologies and definitions that we arbitrarily create for ourselves.
This includes the world of work — a world in which we have designed clear separations of roles and responsibilities, none of which are more "religiously" guarded than the separation of worker and (business) owner. This separation leads to and invites continual tension between worker and owner.
Part of what drives this tension is the condition of being human. Both worker and owner have their respective needs and wants.
However, in the place of work, the expectation on the part of the owner, politicians, and economists is that the worker be motivated to further the ambitions and goals of the owner. That is, upon entering the owner’s place of business, the worker leaves all of his/her needs and wants, ambitions, goals, responsibilities, at the door and focuses on the needs of the owner.
This is an unreal expectation except under conditions where the owners and workers recognize that a healthy business is dependent upon finding a commonality of purpose and appreciating that a healthy business is a means of achieving their respective needs and wants.
In our column last month, we noted that the German model of industrial relations between owner and worker builds upon this commonality of purpose to have and maintain a healthy business.
In Canada, and other nations, we pursue a different model that does nothing to create
co-operation between workers and owners.
Our model no longer recognizes workers as human beings and all that that entails. Workers are now "human resources" and/or "human capital" — terms coined by economists, and willingly, almost greedily, accepted by owners and our governments. These terms effectively and efficiently remove the humanness from the attributes of workers.
As a human resource — the emphasis on "resource" — a worker is viewed as a commodity, similar to a barrel of crude oil or a ton of iron ore. Granted, it’s a commodity that can act and think, but necessarily only in the context of and to the benefit of the business. In essence, humanness is taken out of the worker.
Such dehumanization eases the task of hiring and firing, of relocating or closing a business, of deregulating the workplace environment, and of withdrawing or withholding worker benefits.
Governments also get into the act — back-to-work legislation, less than supportive of worker organizations, less than supportive of protecting worker pensions, dismantling of wage insurance programs, inventing work-for-welfare programs, disregarding unemployment and underemployment statistics except as a measure of the health of businesses, and increasing the retirement age.
Increasingly we are seeing governments, influenced and supported by business, change or create policies with respect to worker issues.
Unemployed workers are expected to relocate to areas of worker demand, to accept lower wages or salaries. Temporary foreign worker programs are designed that negate and render futile any power that workers might have in a free-market economy to obtain training or retraining for existing jobs, adequate wages and better work environment.
As well, owners are free to relocate their businesses to other parts of Canada or the world in pursuit of lower wage costs, regardless of the unemployment created at home. And those persons who are out of work, do not work, or cannot work — well, they are just an idle or non-usable resource.
As human capital, workers (both existing and future) need to be treated as a raw material that needs to be manipulated, refined and shaped for the use by and benefit of businesses. And if investing in education, training, apprenticeships and health of Canadians is too expensive, then hiring "temporary" workers is a financially preferable alternative.
Our health, which includes the health of our economy, depends on understanding the human condition.
There is no inherent conflict between workers and owners. Both are after the same goals — namely, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Both understand that if a business does not survive, so will the dreams of the workers and the owner disintegrate. Both need to understand that working in harmony is so much healthier than working in conflict.
We are human beings. The terms "human resources" or "human capital" are
ill-conceived and much too narrow descriptors of what it means to be human beings.
Economists seem to like the terms and concepts. Economic theories are so much simpler when you do not have to consider the vagaries of human beings who never do what one expects or theorizes.
Governments love the terms — politicians can understand them and policies are so easy to design in the context of simple terms even if they have no basis in reality.
However, we are an erratic bunch. That is our weakness when it comes to categorizing or organizing us. That is our strength as a society.
Chester and Rosemarie Letkeman are both retired from federal public service and are long-time Brandon residents. They are both interested in public policy, but have no political affiliation. Their column runs monthly.