Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pope Francis on Factory Wages in Bangladesh: A Theological Basis of Corporate Social Responsibility

If what Pope Francis said during a private Mass in April 2013 takes hold as a theme in his papacy, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement will have gained a new public advocate on the world stage. Besides the fact that the pope is the spiritual leader to well over a billion Roman Catholics around the world, his remarks are significant in the that they proffer theology as an alternative foundation for CSR. As with the more established bases, theology applied to CSR has its advantages and shortcomings.

Scholars of CSR have long debated the salience of ethical principles as the basis of the movement/theory, as against the alternative basis in cultural norms. On the ethics side, the word responsibility is said to connote ought (i.e., prescriptive duty) rationally applied to conduct. To whit, businesses ought to be more responsible.

However, basis of CSR could also be a desired shift in corporate values and norms toward  a greater degree of fit with extant social norms held societally. In other words, the CSR agenda can be characterized as moving one set of values/norms closer to a more widely-held set. While prescriptive in nature--wayward corporate norms should be changed--the emphasis here is on norms and values that already exist rather than ought to exist. The goal is to get corporate norms to reflect, or at least not be in conflict with societal norms so the corporation will not suffer a loss in reputational capital and long-term profit from being out of sync with society.

Put even more academically, the question is whether CSR is founded in philosophy (ethics being a sub-discipline) or sociology/anthropology. If Pope Francis’s theological rationale can be reckoned as an alternative, theology or religious studies (i.e., widening out to other religions)  could be reconized as CSR's basic academic displine. That is to say, CSR could be studied by adding study of theology (or religious studies) to management. The opportunity cost would be the foregone study in ethics and sociology. As there is a cost, it is worthwhile to investigate the pope's rationale, including its context.

The pope’s homiletical comments came in the wake of a major industrial accident in India. On April 24, 2013 in Bangladesh, India, an eight-story building containing (among other things) five garment factories collapsed. As of this writing, more than 1100 people had already been found dead in the rubble. This made the accident the worst of its kind in history.

It is as if the sheer magnitude of the disaster shook people's confidence in the power of the ethical principle of duty and relevant societal norms to resist or even push back the countervailing force of greed fueled by the ubiquitous profit-motive. In other words, the standing of human nature itself took a hit. It makes sense then that a religious leader would preach an alternative basis that obviates the new-found lack of balance in human nature by transcending it and even our very realm of existence.

I now turn to the pope’s rationale to consider how his theological approach might apply to the five manufacturers in the disaster and the clothing retailers that buy the output. Furthermore, a bit can be said about relevant public policy. In short, how far does the sinning against God extend?

In his homily, Pope Francis said he was shocked to learn that the workers who died had been earning a paltry 38 euros (about $50) a month. Granted the standard of living is relatively low in Bangladesh as compared to North America and Western Europe, but that a day's pay is just enough to buy a dozen eggs gives some indication of the ongoing hardship being endured by the typical factory laborer in Bangladesh. Rather than focus only on the immediate tragedy, the pope used it to focus attention on the ongoing suffering endured by the working poor, some of whom even in Bangladesh are Christian and thus of particular concern to the pope.

The Pope excoriated the garment companies’ wage policies as being equivalent to slave labor. Speaking in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the pope said, “Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us.” That something is “the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity.” God created human beings as being able to survive without having to compromise or sacrifice human dignity.

Of course, it could be argued that creating, working, and having dignity can be of value without any mention of a divine being. The three values could simply be social norms that are highly valued, as in Europe and North America. Even so, the tragedy sent a message around the world that organizational and societal values may not be sufficient to counter the force of greed in human nature, particularly when that nature finds itself in positions of power.

Therefore, I want to flesh out a  distinctly theological rationale that could have been behind the pope’s remarks. I turn next to what it might be.

 "God giving life to Adam" by Michelangelo.     source:      
In all three Abrahamic faiths, work is punishment for Adam's original sin. In their respective poems on cycles, both Hesiod and Ovid place laboring with buried treasures in the Iron Age, which is the furtherest (and lowest) from the prestine Golden Age. At least with respect to antiquity, toil did not have much of a positive connotation.

Yet in the Renaissance and later in Calvinism, industriousness made its way as a Christian virtue. Working hard to fashion God's gold as good stewards and dispensing some of the output as charity (neighbor-love being caritas in Latin) could give work a positive theological significance.

Furthermore, creating things and having dignity could be based on mankind being made in the image of God. Creativity can be associated with God being the Creator. Human dignity can be thought of from the standpoint of Leibniz’s point that human beings have a share of the perfection that is sourced in God as the perfect being. God's being perfect is inclusive of other divine attributes, such as omnipotence (all-powerful), benevolentia (having a good will), omnipresence (being everywhere), and omniscience (knowing all). Being made in the image of God, we have a certain dignity in that we exist. Our being, or existance, has a share of ultimate being, which is perfection in God. In short, we have dignity because we exist as created by God in His image.

Trampling on the divine image in other people by paying them a humiliating wage to do mundane, repetitive work is like putting a light under a bushel even though one knows that the radiance from the light belongs out in the open rather than weighed down and hidden. “Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God!” Francis said. He could easily have pointed to Jesus’s saying, “What you do to the least of mine, you do to me.” This is fundamental to Jesus’s message that God is to be loved by loving one’s neighbor—even one’s enemies. Leibniz puts this as caritas seu benevolentia universalis, or love, that is, universal benevolence, in the Codex.

In summary, sinning clothing manufacturers, including their owners and managers, deny God’s divine attributes by weighing down those created in God's image by paying them hardship wages. There is no neighbor-love in that, and thus no God. To get a fuller sense of how theology can serve as a basis for CSR, this theological rationale can be extended beyond the garment manufacturers themselves to those stakeholders who can be said to have played an indirect role in the tragedy.

The pope could have pointed to the fact that the building’s owner, Mohammed Rana, had ignored huge cracks and the consequent police evacuation order in assuring tenants that the building was safe. After the collapse, he was arrested for negligence, illegal construction (he had permission to build five stories), and forcing workers to join work.

Similarly, the pontiff could have pointed to the managers of the five factories, who, after having been informed of the evacuation order, ordered their workers to report to work. That a bank and some shops in the building did not open after the evacuation order suggests that the building’s owner and the factory managers must have known they were subjecting their employees to considerable risk of being killed.

In answer to Rana and the five factory managers who knew of the unsafe condition of the building, the pope could have given a homily on how the squalid cocktail of selfish greed, obstinate presumptuousness (i.e., “I can’t be wrong) and abuse of power can smother other people to death--pushing their lights under a bushel to be hidden forever. To knowingly put others at risk is to deny the inherent value in  not only the share of perfection that they have merely in existing, but also the font of perfection itself, which is God as perfect being.

The theological denunciations against paying the factory workers paltry wages and  forcing them to work in unsafe conditions can be extended to include the indirect culprits, such as the apparel retailers that had contracted with the five manufacturers and even any retailer that contracts with a sweatshop. The question relevant to corporate theological responsibility is whether indirectly enabling low wages and unsafe working conditions rather than acting to curtail them is included in the sin against God mentioned by the pope.

Specifically, by paying such low prices for the factory output, do the retailers keep the factory workers hungry? Were there not the contracts, would the workers be doing creative work elsewhere? Finally, do the retailers enable the factory managers to keep treating the workers in ways that violate any sort of dignity in the worker? If so, then Jesus's command to love one's neighbor as oneself is being violated not only by the manufacturers, but also by the more distant, yet contributory retailers.

The executives of retail clothing companies like JC Penney and the Gap surely know that contracting with a sweatshop allows them the advantage of paying less for the factory output because of the below-poverty wages and lack of safety upkeep. Rather than worrying about possible unsafe factory conditions or whether the factory workers can support a family, those executives are calculating that the low price they get to pay more than makes up for the additional shipping costs. 

Approaching CSR alternatively by looking at social norms, the disjuncture between the executives' values and societal values concerning sustenance would be the focal point. CSR would be oriented to change the executives' values so they are in line with the societal values, perhaps by showing the executives that their respective companies can make more money that way, or at least have a better reputation.  

In approaching CSR by means of ethics, the question would be whether the executives' motives, actions, or consequences thereof violates an ethical principle. Are those executives violating the social contract wherein the rights a company enjoys come with certain obligations? Are those executives enabling people to be treated only as other peoples' means, or also as ends in themselves? Do the low wages and unsafe conditions go along with the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people? Especially if the answers to these three questions all point to unethical conduct, the retailers' policies ought to be changed.

Adding insult to injury, the apparel retailers extend very little flexibility to the sweatshops. American Apparel CEO Dov Charney explains that in the apparel industry, “it’s all about deadline. You’ve got to get these sweatshirts or this swimwear by a certain day, or you’re nailed, and you’re out of business.” Strict cutoff dates and the lack of cooperation from retailers pushed factories in developing countries to their limits, forcing them to do whatever it takes to get the job done on time. This may explain why the managers of the five factories chose to ignore the evacuation order. If so, the relevant retailers bear some of the blame for pressuring the managers to do whatever it takes to finish an order on time, even if doing so involves risking the lives of the workers.

Beyond the managers and companies involved, the Indian society itself, particularly as it is reflected in public policy on the state and federal levels in India, may also be culpable theologically for having been negligent toward worker safety. The societal norm allowing for corruption in India allows building owners, construction companies, and manufacturers to get away with a lot. In the U.S., the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and a watchful media provide sufficient scrutiny that manufacturers cannot easily get away with whatever they want. Accordingly, Charney, whose factory is located in the U.S., declares, “If there’s something unsafe at my factory I’m shutting that thing down. If not, one wrong move and it’s all exposed. That’s a good thing. That’s not a bad thing.” He may be drawing too stark a contrast so the Indian government will be forced to increase the minimum wage in the low-cost factories. For our purposes here, the relevant point is that the failure of the Indian government to enact and enforce more rigorous regulations oriented to worker safety and wages may also be within the sin against God.

More generally, legislators and government officials who do not do enough in enacting public policy oriented to achieving full employment may be sinning against God. “There are many people who want to work but cannot,” the Pope said. “When a society is organised in a way that not everyone is given the chance to work, that society is not just.” The justice to which the Pope undoubtedly was referring is divine justice, which also stems from God’s attributes—in particular, omnipotence (all-powerful) and omniscience (all-knowing). According to Leibniz, that justice is essentially love manifesting as universal benevolence. Simply put, having a share of God’s perfection, each person is due benevolence from others.  To violate that justice, such as by selfishly paying another person only enough to keep him as a means rather than as having value in being made in the image of God, is to sin against God.

In summary, managers (and their companies) who are not theologically responsible to the workers are not merely unethical and acting contrary to societal norms. From the theological perspective, the fundamental flaw in running a company centers on sinning against God. Prideful selfishness and sordid greed slight God by replacing neighbor-love with exploitation. This is not to say that God, being omnipotent, is confined to our social norms or even our ethical systems. A theological perspective can mandate conduct that is unethical or against a society’s norms. So the theological perspective does not reduce to either that of ethics or sociology. There are, however, at least two problems in going with the theological grounding.

First, it is debatable whether a theological rationale for CSR can or should be recognized as valid beyond the safe confines of the believers who subscribe to the theological doctrines. For example, it might not be fair to apply criteria from Christianity to the people of India, whose people are predominantly Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. In his homily during Midnight Mass in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI cited Origen, a theologian in Early Christianity, who saw paganism such as Hinduism as "a lack of feeling." Paganism, the pope said quoting from Origen, "means a heart of stone that is incapable of loving and perceiving God's love." In other words, a Hindu married couple is incapable of loving each other. "Lacking feeling and reason, [pagans] are transformed into stones and wood." A Hindu manager would likely ask why he should apply a pope's theological criteria to anything. If the Hindu manager is "lacking feeling and reason," how could he apply any criterion?

It could be argued that the extent of corruption allowed and the consequent laxity in regulation and wage-support in India should be critiqued by Hindu rather than Christian principles, though non-Hindus in India would doubtlessly object to even that solution. It is not clear, therefore, whether religious claims from any religion, including Christianity, are universal enough to be applicable beyond the members of the particular religion. If so, it might be difficult to treat religious belief as an alternative to ethical principles and social norms on which to base CSR.

Second, the Pope’s theological rationale can be put in secular terms without much if any change in the resulting prescription. For example, trampling on creatures made in the image of God bears a resemblance to Kant’s ethical categorical imperative that rational beings should be treated not only as a means to one’s own interests, but also as an end in themselves. Exploiting workers, whether by paying them an insufficient wage or mandating that they work in an unsafe building, involves treating them as a means only. How much more of a rationale need be added in terms of theology? In other words, is the Pope’s rationale redundant, practically speaking? If not, perhaps theological (or religious) corporate responsibility should be developed. 

Agence France Presse, “Pope Francis Condemns ‘Slave Labor’ in Bangladesh: ‘Goes Against God’,” The Huffington Post, May 1, 2013.  
Farid Hossain, “Bangladesh Building Collaspe Death Toll Rises To 430, Many Still Missing,” the Huffington Post, May 2, 2013.   
Syed Zain AL-Mahmoud, “Bangladesh Factory Toll Surpasses 800,” The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2013.
Pope Benedict XVI, "Midnight Mass Homily," The Vatican, December 24, 2009.