Ethics of Wages and Working Conditions

The ethics of wages and working conditions is a broad topic that includes consideration of right and wrong in a wide range of questions having to do with the treatment of workers.

One central set of concerns has to do with what constitutes fair wages (or pay, or compensation more generally). One view treats wages as a kind of price (the price an employer pays for the worker’s labour) and argues that here, as in other situations, prices ought to be set by the market based on the supply of, and demand for, the good in question, namely in this case a particular kind of labour. A different ethical view argues that employers have a duty to pay a fair wage. In some cases, the argument is that employers ought to pay a living wage, namely a wage that is sufficient to allow the worker to enjoy a ‘normal’ standard of living.

Another key set of concerns has to do with workplace health and safety. One key question here has to do with the lengths an employer must go to in order to reduce health risks. In principle, any workplace will always pose some risks, and those risks can never be reduced to zero. Another question has to do with an employer’s obligation to make sure that employees understand the risks that they are exposed to. Employees working with dangerous chemicals, for example, are generally thought to have a right to know the dangers of those chemicals, so that they can make informed decisions about their own safety.

A third set of concerns has to do with the length of a workday, frequency of breaks, and the intensity of the work being done. The most common worry, perhaps, is about workdays that are so long that they constitute an inhumane hardship for the worker. An 8-hour workday for example is generally considered acceptable, but (with rare exceptions) a 12-hour day is not. There is also generally an expectation, as part of an employer’s general obligation to provide humane working conditions, that workers will receive occasional breaks, including breaks for lunch and to use the bathroom. Conversely, questions arise about an employer’s obligation to provide enough hours of work. Employers have sometimes been criticized for failure to provide full time employment (thereby possibly avoiding having to offer benefits). In other cases, employers have been criticized for offering very short shifts: expecting an employee to spend an hour to get to work in order to work a 2-hour shift can easily be seen as unfair.

The term “sweatshop” is often used pejoratively to describe places (typically factories in developing nations) that feature a combination of low wages, long hours, and relatively weak protections for worker health and safety.

Three key forces may be identified in the general upward trend in wages and working conditions. First, market forces have often worked in this direction: employers may offer better wages and working conditions in order to attract workers. Second, in some cases workers have been able to unionize in order to increase their bargaining power and thereby persuade employers to offer better wages and improved working conditions. Finally, governments in most jurisdictions have passed a variety of regulations aimed at improving wages (for example, by establishing a minimum wage) or working conditions (for example, by requiring employers to provide safety equipment).

See also in CEBE:

Further Reading: