03.14.08

Employment: Modern Day Slavery?

Posted in Business, Ethics at 11:42 am by Haider

I recently received an email likening employment to slavery. Actually, “likening” is an understatement, because the writer stated that employment is worse than slavery! The writer makes some erroneous assumptions and jumps to odd conclusions. And since employment is a daily reality for most of us, it is important that we do not feel guilty about it, to learn what it means and to realise how it can serve our lives.

A Note on Slavery

Before I analyse the writer’s views on employment, we must realise that slavery is immoral from both directions. That is, it is immoral to enslave, and immoral to accept being a slave. It is not immoral to be forced into slavery, because morality comes into play only when we are able to choose. To be forced into slavery is not the issue, but to accept being a slave without challenging your conditions, or at least acknowledging that it is wrong to be enslaved, is immoral.

When the writer likens employment to slavery, he is not simply saying that it is not the optimal way to live, but that it is wrong to continue accepting your “enslavement.” He is not offering a way out of employment as a better alternative, but that the “better alternative” should be our only choice. Employment – as slavery – should not be accepted. And if we wish to accept our enslavement, we should do so with a sense of guilt, because we are accepting something which is immoral.

This is the idea that I wish to challenge by offering an alternative understanding of employment.

Examples of “Slavery”

The writer offers several examples to illustrate how employment is slavery. The article begins by describing one employee’s hectic life, to the extent that he has been unable to furnish his house, or let alone see the rest of his house apart from the room that he sleeps in, because he’s been too busy with work to pay attention to his personal life. The article also criticizes those who have nowhere to go once their workday ends, and so they feel compelled to stay after hours.

The fact that many workers drink coffee in the morning to face their day is viewed by the writer as a sign that we need coffee (i.e. a drug, because we wouldn’t be able to experience wakefulness without it) because we are of those who struggle to remember “who they are, or what they are.”

The writer also mentions some of his personal experiences to show what modern day slavery (i.e. employment) is like, and how he has suffered (or may continue to be suffering) under this slavery. He has been affected by his son’s request not to leave to work, and feels that the best years of his life and his son’s life are lost to employment. He also experienced health problems as a result of the stress and routine he had while working.

Our dependency on technology are the chains of slavery in the eyes of the writer, because it indicates how we are slaves to technology rather than being its master. And while this may be seen as a critique of our lifestyle, the criticism is deeper than that, as the writer reveals in another point he makes: the writer doesn’t simply consider technology a burden, but criticises (presumably Arab or Muslim) employees whose primary language is English. But why did he make this point? Why should the language we use be an indication of the “slavery” we experience?

The fact is, it’s not the consequences of technology on our lives that the writer finds troubling, but our dependency on the technology produced by the West. It’s not the slavery to work that the writer finds upsetting, but slavery to Western culture. His remarks on the language we use reveal the real intentions behind the entire article, and explains why the writer condemns corporate life, and why he does not address the issue objectively: he seeks to attack Western culture and is using employment as a vehicle towards those ends. When the writer can state that the majority of a person’s life is spent in employment, but that it “rarely has a positive effect on the life of the employee,” then you know that he’s being extremely biased in dealing with the subject.

Classic Slavery vs Modern Day “Slavery”

Just like the slaves who built the pyramids, the writer notes, who may have felt a sense of pride in constructing the greatest monuments in human history, modern day workers should not feel pride or a sense of accomplishment for what they achieve because, at the end of the day, they are all slaves.

But modern day “slaves” are worse than the slaves of the old days, according to the writer, because the slaves of the past were forced into slavery, whereas modern “slaves” are slaves to the idea that they have to work, and that they have to become better slaves!

To help us determine when we’ve become slaves, the writer offers these three indicators:

1- If you work over hours

2- If you consistently think about your work, even when you’re in bed

3- If your closest friends are your colleagues at work

I should note that while the writer seems to be targeting employees in his article (who are slaves to their employers), all his criticisms are applicable to both employers as well as freelancers who work by themselves, but offer their services for others. Looking at all the points the writer raises, it seems that employment is not what he’s attacking, but the idea of having to work to earn a living. All the negative effects of employment seem to be potential symptoms for anyone engaged in any productive activity.

The Writer’s Utopia

The writer asks two important questions:

What is the nature of work?

What is the nature of life?

He believes that the aim of life is to be happy, and while he does not offer an explanation of what work is or means, he follows this with the question: If work doesn’t make us happy, why are we still working?

The article ends with a call to retire from work, before we are forced to retire. How can we retire and earn a living? The writer doesn’t explain. All that he leaves us with is a sense of guilt if we don’t cast our chains and jump on his bandwagon (which, presumably, leads to nowhere).

The article lacks any specifics, apart from criticising some of the symptoms of modern life. It doesn’t explain the nature of work, what it means to be happy, or how work and happiness relate to human nature. To better understand the issues addressed in the article, it is important that we clarify the main concepts and understand them for what they are. To simply appeal to our moral conscience, while ignoring the facts is a cheap way of presenting one’s views.

A Look at Reality

Human history reveals the hardships we had to endure to survive on earth. We never had our food delivered without having to struggle (or at least work) for it. We do not receive our sustenance by default. When humans had to search, or hunt, for food, “not working” was not an option, unless you were prepared to die, or to depend on others for your meals. With the advent of the industrial revolution, in which production, with the use of techonologically advanced production methods, jumped exponentially, and the effort that had to be put in through manual labour was dramatically reduced, yet the output in production was dramatically raised. This meant that we were able to free up more of our time that we would have otherwise spent in search of our basic necessities.

The benefits that the industrial revolution offered mankind are enormous, and I cannot expand on them fully in this article. But we must note that we are living in an industrialized world, and this is what the writer seems to be attacking. What the writer seems to ignore is that the alternative to the work he is criticizing is a return to farming, or hunting for food, or depending on others for our sustenance. Since life on earth requires that we work for our needs, this fact cannot be ignored. You cannot simply wish to survive living the way that makes you happy, without considering what it takes to survive on earth.

And while hunting, or farming, can be accepted as natural needs, the idea of working for a living seems to be artificial, because we cannot see the direct connection between working at a desk and earning our food. Why should we put in such effort in order to live? Is this not slavery in the modern sense, where we must please our masters in order to earn our daily bread? The fact is, this is far from slavery. Because we are not all obliged to work on farms, it does not mean that we are automatically entitled to the food the farmers harvest. Just because farmers can now produce far more food (surpassing their personal needs), it does not mean that we have a right to that food.

One of the basic human interactions that have existed throughout the centuries is trade. Farmers are willing to give you what they produce in exchange for the goods that you produce. In modern times, we do not have to go directly to the farmers to offer our services or goods, but can exchange our services to other members of society, using the medium of money, to represent the services – or value – that we have rendered. What our money represents to the farmers (or the tailors, or any other professional whose goods are of use or desire for us) is the value that we have produced, which he can then exchange with others to gain what he pleases, for the value that he has offered.

The concept of trade treats the two parties involved as equals, exchanging value for value. Neither one is a master, or a slave.

Being an Employee

The idea of trade is at the heart of employment. Just because you work within someone else’s corporation does not mean that you are a slave to your employer. What it does mean is that you are willing to offer your services, in exchange for the goods or services other members of society offer. You do not have to earn your food or clothing from your boss, but from any other member of society, using the money you gain for your work.

Brian Tracy, a businessman and speaker, says that you should see yourself as a corporation that is offering its services to the corporation you work for. That is, rather than see yourself as a cog within the company (system) you work in, see yourself as a separate entity that is offering value, in exchange for the value you will receive in return.

Given this understanding of employment and trade, it is extremely noble for someone to offer value for value, whereby nobody is exploited in the process. And it is also noble to seek to improve your ability to produce greater value for those you deal with, so that you can earn more, and to improve the quality of your life. What the writer of the article criticising employment fails to realise is that his criticism of modern day work is centred on the symptoms of work, and not work itself. And as I will show, these symptoms can be avoided by dealing with the real issues at the root of these problems.

The Causes and the Symptoms

Most of the problems modern day workers experience can be avoided by changing their lifestyles and work habits. The reason why so many workers need to spend long hours to get their work done isn’t due to the nature of their work (sometimes it is), but mostly to do with the amount of value they produce while they work. Since they do not produce a lot of value in one hour, they must put in extra hours to compensate for their low productivity. How can this be resolved? Not by abandoning work, but by increasing the value we can produce and decreasing the time it takes to produce that value. In other words, by being more efficient.

Many, many hours of the day are wasted in confusion and lack of concentration, where workers have not decided on what they will produce, and so end up surfing on the Internet, or chatting with colleagues, etc. Studies on productivity have shown that the average employee may only work one or two hours out of the whole workday, so it’s no surprise if he needs to put in extra hours to compensate.

A lot of the health problems workers suffer from are not due to the nature of their work, but their decisions on what to eat and how to live. Although some workers might feel stressed from work, but it does not mean that they don’t have a half hour to spare a day for exercise, or that they cannot arrange to eat healthier food to boost their energy, without the negative side effects. The poor decisions workers make are not the fault of their work.

If we look at all the criticisms thrown towards work and corporate life, we will see that many of the problems can be avoided by taking decisions on how one chooses to work and to live his life. Career choices impact the levels of happiness we experience. If we choose a job that we hate, we will live miserable lives. Rather than blame the job for it, blame yourself for choosing that job.

In Closing…

Although living life as an employee may have more restrictions than working as a freelancer, we cannot escape the fact that we need to work to earn our living. We need to produce value if we expect to receive value. This isn’t something that we should feel guilty about, or try to avoid. Our sense of accomplishment should not be frowned upon but be embraced.

Productivity is a human virtue we should feel proud about, and we must continuously strive to increase the value we produce and improve the skills we possess, so that we can be of greater importance to others, and so that we can afford to live the life we want to live.

13 Comments »

  1. Bashar said,

    March 14, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Well for a start, I prefer someone not to be slave for a job, but don’t rush in arguing (I know you won’t :) let me explain. What I mean by slavery is, feeling stuck with a job you hate. Fearing to attempt any change that might make you happier, better, or richer. Make a public survey. How many people are happy with their job? Most people are complaining without you even asking. Tell them to look for an alternative and quit, and see the look on their faces. This could feel to me like a type of slavery, where I am forced to something, and can’t do anything about it.

    Another thing that some people interpret wrong is why to work hard and long hours. If you are gifted with finding the best motivational and rewarding job, something like Google for example, then good for you, I may stick at my job the whole day. Why? I personally want 3 main things from my job:

    1- Experience
    2- Environment you work in
    3- Money

    If however you are just working long hard hours in a hope for small raise and bit increase on the bonus, and most of the time you don’t get what you hope for, this is where I have a second opinion. You can do your day job, leave after and invest in secondary business. Multiply your streams of income, do not be dependent on one source, create the ability to make more money.

    Risk is involved is here. Ability is another thing. Some people really have certain obligations and cant afford those risks. For those people, my hat off for baring all the hard work to pay his bill.

    As for the article you are talking about in specific. I would like to see how this person is living. He is either a slave for something, or a master for other slaves. So if he is against it, why is he practicing it on others? The world is not designed for people to live individually. You cannot expect every person to make his own business. Any business with slight growth will require more resources, those resources are what he calls slaves.

    A job in short is an agreement between two parties. Employer needs some work to get done. Employee offers his time and talent to accomplish that task, in return to some guaranteed stable monthly income. It keeps away the pressure. If some people in nature are highly motivated to do more work, then they must be enjoying it, probably more than the person only making the money. People who take day’s work headache with them home have a personal problem, and should learn to better balance between life and work, but it’s not slavery. A manager of mine told me stop thinking of your work after leaving. It’s very bad. I still remember his words every time I get under pressure.

    I would assume either the writer is rich, or has his own business (freelancing perhaps). But what is he driving? Not a bicycle I’m sure. What did he use to write his article? Not pen and paper I guess. Where is he keeping all his money? In a bank with western minds behind it using pure western technology. Either that, or he wants to be living in the stone age just to be independent.

    In summary, the writer should read about what’s called Synergy “The whole is larger than the sum of it’s parts” It’s how humans live.

    Thanks

  2. Ralf Wilmes said,

    March 14, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    Hi, I learned about your site from Nathaniel Branden’s blog, so I decided to have look. I like your clarity of reasoning, and from reading this article I can tell the objectivists/libertarian idea’s behind it, which I share and value.

    What I want to take out of this article, is the’hate’ against modern business or even work itsself that I encounter too in my daily work. I work and live in Italy, and there’s a way that I see a lot of people that consider work as a necessary evil. Life begins when you leave the office. Earning money is what you need to do sure, but work is too often seen as being separate from life. On the other hand I do recognize and see that a lot of people desire to be motivated, that is: have the feeling that their work has a sense and purpose and use work as a way to express who you are. That’s what it is. That’s what it should be.

    Sure, in big companies like the one I work in, the relation between working and seeing the end result (profit/loss) get’s lost all too easily. Wages are fixed, incentive-systems are a fake, and money circulates within the company to make up for inefficiencies. The concept of self-responsibility is easily lost this way. When it’s your own money you spend you think twice, when it’s the (anonimous) company’s money you spend you don’t care in whatever degree.

    This relation can only be restored within a truely free system, that is capitalism. There’s no way you can not ‘feel’ the result of waste (money and time) in such a system.

    Protection and burocracy kill creativity. Kill the need to think. And yes, when you lose all that, life can result very shallow indeed. But it can be done differently, i am convinced.

    To say it still in another way, I truely agree with your comments my freind and it is an argument I feel very passionate about.
    best regards, Ralf

  3. Haider said,

    March 15, 2008 at 9:15 am

    Bashar, I agree with everything you said. Work *can* feel like slavery if an employee approaches it as such, and the examples you have given illustrate how this can be done. This means that the employee becomes a slave by choice, according to how he sees his job. If he’s not prepared to use his free will to make the right choices, but instead goes with the flow, then he is being a slave to his circumstances, and eventually his employer.

    What I’m challenging in this article is the idea that work is *intrinsically* evil and operates as a master-slave model. This is wrong, and makes us feel guilty for pursuing a very noble activity.

    Thanks for raising all those points!

  4. Haider said,

    March 15, 2008 at 9:30 am

    Dear Ralf, thanks for coming by, and I’m glad we have shared values :D

    I work (for now!) in the public sector, and I find it very frustrating to see how money is being wasted, and how the “company” operates more like a charity than a business.

    The attitude towards work as a necessary evil is what’s making people unhappy, and why they do not seem to draw the career path for themselves that will make them happy. Many people feel guilty if they say they want to make “more money.”

    And while I defend work and business, it is important to acknowledge the fact that many businesses are immoral, and seek to exploit their workers. But, in a free market, businesses would take more care of their employees, as they would risk losing them to their competitors.

    Thanks, once again, and I look forward to more of your comments in the future :D

  5. Ralf Wilmes said,

    March 15, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Dear Haider, thanks.
    You are describing my company there in a lot of senses (charity; taking care of employees). But: I am working in a private company! Good to know that there are people like you out there.

    ”Taking care of employees” is almost always seen from a socialist point of view when I talk about this at work. When I then care to explain that my comment comes from a libertarian and self-interest point of view, their faces turn to disapproval and the label ‘fascist’ will be applied to people like me!
    Well, where do you start to explain then, I mean, in an ‘confusion’ of idea’s like this.

    Still more then simply not knowing enough about political systems (that can be quickly explained), the problem is ethical in the first place to me. As you mention, senses of guilt to make more money. Isn’t that part of the sense of guilt to pursue happiness and pursue your self-interest in the largest sense of the term.

    On a lighter note: I ordered a sticker on the internet. It’s the words ‘enjoy capitalism’ written like the logo of Coca Cola. I am going to put that nicely on the back of my car. I now await the reactions in traffic from others, will my life still be safe? :-)

    Take care, Ralf

  6. Haider said,

    March 15, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Dear Ralf, I will hopefully write more articles to explain Objectivist views on ethics and politics.

    When trying to explain the idea of self-interest to others, I would suggest that you emphasise on the idea of not exploiting others for your own self-interest, because, just as you expect others to respect your right to pursue your happiness, you respect their right to their own happiness.

    If you’re making money by contributing (i.e. giving) value to others, it’s immoral for others to *demand* that you don’t get paid! They don’t have a right to your work for free, and whoever makes such a claim should reconsider who the fascist is.

  7. Ralf Wilmes said,

    March 15, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Agreed.
    Yes implicitly I meant self-interest as to be reciprocal. I avoid to use the word exploitation where I work, for it’s strong association with socialist idea’s. (the exploitation of the working class).

    Perhaps I should mention that I am in a managing job working with a large group of fairly young people.
    From my point of view however there’s a tendency to have way too much management. Meaning: when the whole company starts delegating to people that delegate then the outcome is obvious. I am, as you can guess, strongly in favor of a culture of self-responsibility, and with these kind of endless pyramid structures in the end self-responsibility gets totally lost.
    It gets lost because quite rightly it only works if the majority does so, otherwise the one who get’s the load of others start to..well…shrug.

    With this I mean that, although people get paid in companies according to a fixed rate, the direct relation between the amount of value you create and the amount of value you get in return is non always linear This would be much more tangible when you run your own business. When you make a mistake or do not use your mind to the best of your ability you loose money.

    As to illustrate what I mean by treating staff with respect and taking care of them, It’s in their obvious interest working in an ambience of this kind and that way they will obviously work better and be more productive.

    As obvious as this seems to me, I really think you do not want to invite for dinner, the sheer amount of managing population that focus on obedience, ‘keeping people under pressure’(?), ‘micromanaging’, ‘check the staff otherwise they will surely cheat on you’ followed by slogans on team work and collaboration. I suppose I do not need to explain to you what they really intend to say with those. The motive all too often is power-lust. And I see little passion for the product itself. Very sad.

    The real job in any company- as I see -is to appeal to the minds of the staff, to listen, to give them responsibility, to get them thinking. There’s just no way that people start to think and be passionate when you exploit them.
    (ok for you I make an ecception and use that word). There’s no way that you get results and joy in work when you forget that everybody should benefit from it (in the large sense of the word: in my experience people want much more benefit out of work than money nowadays; they want to see that their work really matters, really makes a difference. That is has a purpose.

    (hope I’m not filling up your blog too much, but this argument puts me ‘on fire’).
    Take care,
    Ralf

  8. Haider said,

    March 15, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    Ralf, you’re filling my blog with valuable insights, so there’s no need to worry.

    But I would prefer to address the issues you’ve raised in a separate post (or posts), so it can become the focus of discussion.

    I hope I’ll be writing more posts about business in the near future, and we can continue our discussions there :D

    Thanks again,
    Haider

  9. Seth said,

    March 18, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Look at it this way, if a group of people wanted to enslave the rest of the world, what would they have to establish?

    1. A centralization of food production.
    2. Adjustable income taxation.
    3. Fiat currency (money that has arbitrary value)
    4. An institution that is in control of the arbitrary distribution and value of said currency.
    5. Property taxes. (Even if an individual wish to resign himself to living off of his land, he would need some income to pay his property tax)
    6. Control of the education system (to convince the population that are in fact free even if it often seems that they are slaves)
    7. Inflation (this goes along with 3 and 4 but usually doesn’t show itself until later)

    Are you seeing my point? I could go on but I will leave the list at that for now.

    Also, history illustrates just how enslaved the American people are. Think of the Great Depression (also Germany during super-inflation). People had worked. They had earned money. And overnight their money is worthless. Who do they instantly become dependent upon? The government. And who was responsible for the underlying factors that led to the Great Depression? The government. And who makes up our government? Private individuals who use legislation to insulate themselves from competition. You see, to believe an economic system based on fiat currency is anything but modern slavery is to ignore the realities of your economic situation. You have $5. And today that may buy you a multitude of different things. But tomorrow, who knows? You do not control what your money is worth. But you need buying power to survive. So you will just have to work more and more to continue to meet your basic needs.

    This point was made very sloppily, but I hope my examples will suffice.

  10. Seth said,

    March 19, 2008 at 1:29 am

    Youtube.com– Fiat Empire.

    This is a more organized, detailed analysis of the points I made. It strictly pertains to the United States’ Federal Reserve, but the overall analysis of the economic structure that fiat currency creates pertains to all countries. And if not, it will shortly. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and WTO are all aimed at imposing American Corporatism into all nations.

    50 minutes long but definitely worth it.

  11. Haider said,

    March 19, 2008 at 7:39 am

    Dear Seth, you make some valid points regarding taxation and the value of money. However, this isn’t what I’m discussing here. The writer whose article I criticized wasn’t dealing with the issue of taxation, but with the concept of employment. Even if we were trading with gold, he would have still considered that slavery.

    The solution to the problems you highlighted isn’t to abandon capitalism, but to remove government restrictions on trade, which only serve the “private individuals” who make use of them, and not the companies that are offering the best value for their customers.

    Thanks for the video recommendation.. I’ll definitely be checking out the videos.

  12. Seth said,

    March 19, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    I didn’t say to abandon capitalism. I was showing that we do not have capitalism. The solution is to return to a commodity currency economy with true private banking (the only true laissez faire economy). I believe the Middle East will begin to move in this direction, which is going to spell disaster for the American economy.

    Yeah the guy who e-mailed you is misguided. I hate it when someone makes a decent point (equating employment in our economy to slavery) but then screws it up when he begins to explain his reasoning. I usually agree with people more often on their conclusions than I do with how they reached them.

    You might also find GoldMoney.com interesting. They have found a way to “digitize” gold for the consumer.

  13. Haider said,

    March 19, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Thanks for the info and the link.. I’ll be checking it out soon, hopefully.

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