Whose Face Do You See?

Published 9 June 2020

There is one face that has been etched in my memory for a few months now. The face of a cleaner who appeared at the end of a networking event I attended, asking if she could have some of the leftover catered food.

My friend, the event organiser, responded with positive enthusiasm. Yet, rather than reach for the food, the cleaner stepped aside to make a phone call. She then returned, and with a panicked look and shrill voice asked my friend if he had given her cleaning supervisor the go-ahead for her to take the food. Otherwise, she feared she would get into trouble. Not knowing who her supervisor was, my friend reassured her he would not create any trouble if she took the food. Calmed, she made another call. Shortly after, several other cleaners came to help themselves to the leftover food, each smiling and thanking my friend for it.

Witnessing this scene right after the networking event, where polished executives had enjoyed their wine and finger food by the light of sunset, the two groups – cleaners and executives – stood in stark contrast. I could not help but be pained by the expressions and experience of the cleaner. To have to submit to the power of another, even when asking for food left unwanted by others, can we honestly say that we have achieved a good and just economy for everyone in Singapore?

What is economic justice?

The UK-based IPPR Commission on Economic Justice .defines economic justice as “the fairness with which the economy generates prosperity and distributes its rewards”. It paints a picture of what justice in an advanced economy looks like, with:

  • No one living in absolute poverty, but all to possess the basic goods and services required for a decent life, including a home;
  • Dignity for everyone in their economic life, that is, no exploitation in the form of very low wages, forced labour, or unsafe working conditions; and
  • Narrowing inequalities of wealth, income and power over time.

Economist and theologian Andrew Hartropp further emphasises that economic justice is not just a situation or state. Rather, it is about how we treat one another in everyday relationships. Justice in economic life is not merely transactional between faceless parties but relational with reciprocal responsibilities and obligations between people.

Hence, if you are a people manager, it means treating your staff as a person to be developed and empowered, rather than a cost of production to be minimised.

If you are in an executive position, it means being watchful in how you are treating your employees and workers, as well as customers, suppliers and local communities who are in economically weaker positions.

Economic justice at work: What it looked like for Gravity Payments

What might a leader who believes in economic justice, actually do? What would his or her organisation look like? At Seattle-based card payments company Gravity Payments, prior to 2015, the average salary was US$48,000 a year while its founder and CEO Dan Price drew a salary of US$1.1 million. One day, while on a hike, Price heard a friend share that, even though she was working 50-hour weeks in two jobs to earn US$40,000 a year, she still could not cover her rental and other living expenses in Seattle. That conversation, on the back of previous ones with his employees who had similar struggles, galvanised Price into radical action with purpose. In 2015, he introduced a US$70,000 minimum salary for all 120 staff. Price himself took a pay cut of US$1 million to the same minimum salary of US$70,000, in order to fund the initiative.

After the minimum salary was implemented, junior staff stepped up to do more, having had their concerns over subsistence resolved. Contrary to doubters who thought these employees would become lazy, they proved that economic justice is indeed about reciprocal relationships. With their increased ownership, senior staff benefited as their workload and pressures were reduced, and finally took all their holiday leave with peace of mind.

Nearly five years on, 70% of employees reported that they could pay off personal debts; more than 10% had been able to buy their own homes, up from 1% previously.

Physical health and family life have also improved, including a boom in babies! And for Gravity Payments as a business? Its headcount has doubled and so has the value of payments that the company processes (to US$10.2 billion).

An urgent need for economic justice

In explaining why the economy is in great danger now, Neil Irwin, senior economics correspondent for The New York Times, writes: “We buy the things we want and need, and in exchange give money to the people who produced those things, who in turn use that money to buy the things they want and need, and so on, forever.” Our self-love keeps up a perpetual exchange and cycle of consumption and production, spending and income. Then, the coronavirus and the resulting lockdown measures interrupted this cycle. The economic fallout of this jarring disruption has yet to play out fully, but we are already experiencing its adverse impact on livelihoods and lives.

As market forces and economic transactions wind down, we need to build up another motion machine – that of relationships and economic justice – to weather the storm together.

This runs counter to our instincts for self-preservation and self-enrichment. But given the interconnectedness in our economies, we ensure our well-being when we ensure that of others. Regardless of our formal roles, all of us have a responsibility and a part to play in building economic justice.

So, how can you get started?

Here are three steps for you to help kick-start this new motion machine fuelled by relationships and economic justice:

  1. Look at and remember faces. It is easy to ignore or side-step economic justice when the other party is anonymous and faceless. It is more difficult to do so when you have looked into their faces and eyes and conversed with them. So, look more closely at the people you run into. You will not have enough resources to be all things to all people, but which faces stir your heart more? Cleaners and migrant workers you encounter at work, perhaps. Or perhaps the foreign domestic worker in your household, the customer who cannot afford to pay you right now, or the employee at risk of being put out of a job permanently. Remember these faces and distil what they represent to you – the “who” and “why” that will prompt and drive your efforts.
  2. Examine and strengthen your resolve. As you start considering justice for others, do not be surprised if you experience a struggle within you. Specifically, you will be fighting your greed and vanity. Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity Payments, admits to this struggle, “There’s tests every day. I’m the same age as Mark Zuckerberg and I have dark moments where I think, ‘I want to be just as rich as Mark Zuckerberg and I want to compete with him to be on the Forbes list. And I want to be on the cover of Time magazine, making lots of money.’ All these greedy things are tempting.” To overcome the conflicting thoughts, counter greed and vanity with contentment and humility. This will strengthen your resolve to embark and follow through on doing economic justice.
  3. Start where you are. If you are a CEO today, you are in a position to influence and seed economic justice in your organisation. But there is no need to wait until you have formal or positional power. Keep remembering the faces that have left an imprint on your heart. What are the abilities, resources and opportunities you currently have to facilitate their good and just treatment? Exercise them even now, whether via direct or indirect means.

Where you are right now, close your eyes and scan your memories. Whose face do you see?

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