Manager salaries, typhoon „Haiyan“, and the value of human beings

On 24 November 2013 Swiss citizens will decide by ballot whether, in order to halt an increasing disparity among worker incomes, manager salaries should be legally restricted to a certain limit or not. While the idea of “fair salaries” has been causing huge discussions for a long time, I believe that the consequences of typhoon Haiyan are the best prove why it is more than urgent to finally bring the subject of excessive manager salaries and income disparity among employees on the table.

Most readers might be surprised and even ask themselves what this is all about, when I say that Swiss will decide by ballot whether manager salaries should be restricted or not. Well, the idea is not new, at least not in Switzerland, where excessive manager incomes have been criticized for a long time and where on 3 March this year an overwhelming majority of voters have expressed the need for some sort of regulations as regards ever growing salaries among top-earners. Only, so far, the government, industries and economic advisors have strongly argued against such plans, fearing that Switzerland might lose a lot of big companies that simply “have to pay huge salaries” to their heads for attracting accordant talents, as they argue. Everyone familiar with sociological “role concepts” will understand that this claim is more than questionable, given that every person within a system is more or less replaceable by another person.

In contrast to the sceptics, the reasoning of those strongly in favour of the upcoming “1:12 initiative for fair salaries” makes much more sense. The initiative committee would like to see a law being introduced that restricts the maximum disparity between lowest and highest income within the same company to 1:12. In theory, that would still allow a company to pay very high salaries. The aim is thus not to restrict absolute incomes, but to limit the nowadays quite common and absolute pervert disparity among salaries to a certain extent. Considering that besides the millions of dollars in salaries these people earn, they also enjoy other benefits (bonuses, free car and driver, sometimes housing, free access to this and that, first class air traveling, etc.), it is thus more than justified to ask: are those people really worth that much? Or in other words, are they so many times more worthy than all the employees that do the hard labour within the same companies but that earn thousand times less? We could in other words also say that what the initiative asks for is a higher valuation of low-income employees, not a punishment of “top-talents”.

The disparity between incomes looks even worse if we consider that quite often, those who earn millions of dollars are those taking decisions that negatively affect most individual lives[1] and that cause most harm to our environment[2]. The more morally wrong a decision, the more net profits for the company and hence the higher incomes for the management. Because our legal systems are weak, we reward those that best abuse its holes.

And while managers of big companies fill their pockets with money that morally belongs to all of us, more than 10’000 people lost their lives over the last few days as a consequence of the tropical storm Haiyan that severely hit the Philippines. What is so tragic about those losses is the fact that the disaster was so obvious and predictable. Typhoons can nowadays well be predicted and in the Philippines, everyone is familiar with accordant websites. At the same time it is well-known that the Philippines are faced with several typhoons every year, their devastating energy most likely increasing over the next year as a consequence of climate change. Nevertheless, measures to protect (or better evacuate as happened in Vietnam) residents in the affected provinces were insufficient. Fact is that likely ninety per cent of the population in the Philippines live in dwellings that would hardly resist a storm with even lesser wind speeds. So why then do we not do more in order to prevent such tragedies from happening again in the (maybe near) future?

The answer is as simple as it is disgusting: only because we as a society don’t value the lives of all humans equally. And because we don’t value all lives equally, we don’t protect them with similar efforts. The tragedy in the Philippines is similar in its cause to the suicides of elder people in Spain who simply can’t afford to grow old because society doesn’t provide an accordant framework for doing so. Both are the bitter consequences of people (or employees) not being able to earn enough to live in dignity from birth to death and protect their life against elemental risks, no matter how hard they work.

Where the legal system fails to protect all members of a society, individuals have no other means than to protect themselves with private efforts. This however, is only possible where they have the means to do so, and having the means suggests to earn a decent income that relates somehow to the overall costs of living in a certain place[4]. The reality is that while millions of people worldwide destroy their bodies and minds from hard labour that earns them nothing but a couple of dollars a month, others earn millions of dollars “managing away” our natural resources and human lives. Furthermore, those excessive incomes are what allows certain people to over-consume resources in a disproportionate way. Private jets, super yachts, mansions in environmental protecting zones and other extremely resource consuming individual pleasures would never happen if incomes among world citizens would be more equal.

To conclude, it might be that restricting the current perversion in salaries’ disparity might weaken the attractiveness of the Swiss market and hence harm the Swiss economy. Yet, that is not a bad thing. It is a first step into the right direction and should be applied not only to one nation but to economies all over the world. Only once we bring income disparities among world citizens into a somehow reasonable range, can the work and lives of all citizens be appreciated and rewarded accordingly.

[1] Since the 1990s, many big companies have undergone so called internal reorganizations often associated with huge benefits for their managements and thousands of job losses, increased job pressure and more work load with fewer employees for the lower cadres respectively.

[2] Again, profits are highest where somebody else pays the bill: mining companies make a good example of huge benefits for the management while society pays the bill in form of environmental degradation.

[3] It gets even worse if we look how much worth the lives of non-human animals, as Peter Singer likes to make a more reasonable distinction between humans and animals, are to us.

[4] This relation is important and is best described with the term “relative poverty”. A worker might earn three times more in a big city than a person earns for comparable work in the same country but a rural area and still suffer poverty while the person in the countryside is relatively well off.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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One Response to Manager salaries, typhoon „Haiyan“, and the value of human beings

  1. Pingback: Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

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