Basic Income and Employment Ethics

Could basic income make work better for everyone?

Me and my partner just had a long conversation about whether it’s acceptable to work in unethical jobs, say as a journalist for the Daily Mail or as an engineer for an arms manufacturer. I argued that it’s never a clear-cut issue, and it’s a charge that’s ripe for hypocrisy because we are all likely to say, write, or do something that is unethical in some way. Additionally, many of those who take jobs at firms like these are in a position where they have little choice — and yes, I know that it is relative. What’s an acceptable choice for some is impossible for others, and the grade and career path one is on plays a part in these decisions.

But then I got on to thinking about jobs that I’ve had, working on construction projects where actual slave labour was used, and for companies that accepted money from totalitarian governments. I was fortunate enough to be able to leave that industry, but were it not for my support network, I could still be stuck there now. The nature of neoliberalism’s aims makes it likely that employees will engage in morally questionable, if not indefensible, tasks. It doesn’t matter who you work for, someone’s getting screwed directly or indirectly as a result of your labour.

When profit is the only goal, all sorts of other standards are overlooked. Whether it’s exploiting the vulnerable for profit, or manipulating & bullying one’s staff, so many of us are pushed into situations that we are uncomfortable with, and we have no real choice not to. Of course, some would happily choose these roles, and I suppose it’s better that we are aware of those that can live with these consequences, than having them blend in among us.

What if we were all paid a basic income that meant we didn’t need to take jobs that violate our principles? Basic income is unlikely to be a comfortable sum to live on by itself, but it would offer a safety net so that if one refused to work a job that caused harm, the choice to live at a subsistence level is available. Plenty would choose the higher wage and go to work doing those jobs that compromise their values, but for those that won’t, they can make a stand by sacrificing their standard of living while not starving to death. Everyone has their price.

Dirty Jobs That Someone Has To Do

But it’s not just a means to rejecting work that conflicts with one’s values. Very often, those who inhabit morally ambiguous roles appreciate the position they’re in, and this responsibility is rewarded with higher than average pay. While basic income is often recommended as a means to reduce poverty and inequality, the fact that it could help some managers with a conscience to leave careers that gnaw away at their principles, is likely to make these careers highly-prized. If nobody wants to do it, employers will need to raise the salaries of those jobs in which “difficult” decisions are made. Would that attract the wrong sort of people? I don’t know, but if we’re looking at the current cohort, they do not strike me as especially trustworthy or wise.

Making Zero Hours Work

Of course, not all jobs with a moral problem are high-level roles in which the fate of others is directly impacted. For many employees, they have no issue with the type of work, the problem is with their employer’s practices. One of the biggest employment issues in the UK is with the gig economy. People are working in roles with the demand to be available at a moment’s notice, but with no guaranteed hours. This masks many shortcomings of our economy.

Unemployment is very low, but under-employment is really high. Those existing on zero-hours contracts are forced to be on the lookout for more hours here, a second or third job there. For business owners, they have access to a pool of workers as-needed, only paying for the actual hours worked. These workers are often classed as independent contractors, therefore ineligible for holiday pay and benefits.

Bosses are having their cake and eating it — and UBI could make them share it with their staff. Low-wage seasonal and precarious work would no longer pay if those working those jobs had access to basic income. These workers could opt-out of the market on a basic income that would still be a low wage, but a predictable one. Alternatively, zero-hours workers could choose to improve on their basic income, yet working the hours they choose and not scratching for every billable hour possible.

Zero-hours contracts give variable and unpredictable hours because there are too many workers in the job pool. A basic income system would not only increase these workers’ incomes, but would accommodate the surplus. Not everyone needs to fight over a limited number of available hours, so they can be spread out more evenly to everyone’s overall benefit. It’s like the neoliberal dream finally came true.

Pay and Conditions

Some jobs are tiring, monotonous, low-paid, and yet still highly stressful. Much of the stress comes from having to meet impossible targets and worrying whether one can afford to pay the bills this month. A basic income scheme would provide some level of improvement to the income of these workers, but more than that, it could drive up pay and conditions too. Similar to jobs that contravene one’s principles, a worker would be able to choose whether to stay on in a job that harms their wellbeing — seeing as they don’t need to rely on it as their sole source of income.

There are fears that having a basic income to supplement wages might drive pay down, but I think these fears are unfounded. The argument is that employers will believe they can get away with paying less, because the government would effectively subsidise their pittance wages. But not if we have a minimum wage (which we do in the UK). Most of these jobs pay minimum wage anyway, so employers can’t shirk their payroll responsibilities.

It’s also soon to be illegal for companies to pilfer their employees’ tips in the UK, so low wage workers would really feel the benefit of a basic income scheme. Like all other workers, if minimum wage employees chose to opt out of the jobs market, their potential employers would need to raise pay to attract candidates. They might even get more interest in these vacancies.

More Dirty Work

But this time I’m talking about actual dirty, smelly, unpleasant work. Cleaners, care workers, refuse collectors, sewer workers, street sweepers. Everything that’s a bit icky and stinky. Without people to perform these roles, our country would be an unsanitary and foul place. But these jobs do not pay well, and they’re actually very challenging. As for other jobs that don’t pay well, basic income would give these workers more choice: of whether to accept low wages or decide it’s not worth it, and of how many hours they want to do. Faced with a pool of workers that can take it or leave it, employers will need to adapt to ensure they have the staff they need — and that includes increasing pay.

The Rise of the Machines

At just about every stage in industrial history, mechanisation has disrupted the workplace, but in the end it hasn’t completely replaced manual labour. It does make certain roles redundant, and those are the jobs held by established, middle-aged workers. The machines have taken their jobs, but the next generation will benefit from new opportunities. Technology is developing at a rapid pace, though, and it’s normal for people to completely change their careers, usually from choice rather than necessity. But if your job is replaced by a machine, your options are limited: get a low-skilled job, probably at a lower wage; retrain for a new role; or go on benefits. People are essentially left on the scrapheap.

That’s how it’s been up until recently, with previous generations expecting to have a job for life. During the 1980s British manufacturing and mining took a serious hit, and production line and pit workers alike found themselves out of work. Those skills just weren’t needed anymore, not in the volume we had, anyway. This led to mass unemployment in industrial towns, and has evolved into the current mode of young people deserting these towns to seek their fortune elsewhere. These towns have undergone a lot of change due to the opportunities running out.

Capitalism has sucked the soul out of these communities, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If technology keeps changing at the current rate or faster, we will face another problem — that humans can’t keep up. Workers will need to learn throughout their lives if they are to keep pace with production, and training takes time and money. Basic income would allow workers to take the time to think about which skills to invest in next, and to train themselves up before re-entering the workforce.

The Fall of the Economy

That’s the other time when the jobs market lets ordinary people down. For those unlucky enough to be made redundant, if everywhere’s laying off staff then it’s likely they’ll be unemployed for a while. But our current benefits system punishes those not making the effort to find work. When there just aren’t the jobs available for all the candidates, we come into conflict. First, it’s a major pain for the jobseeker, because they’re caught in the middle. They need benefits to get by during this spell of no work, but the system is set up to fail them — if there’s no jobs to apply for, they’re punished with deductions from their benefits.

Considering the problem more widely, we know that there will be times of high unemployment and that this can precipitate wider problems in society, which in turn can then feed social exclusion, including through more unemployment. It has been demonstrated that the best way to get people out of poverty and homelessness is to just give them money. Basic income is a practical response to this problem, and it only seems to be our squeamishness about giving people “free money” that stops us from implementing it.

Will UBI Save Us From Ourselves?

Maybe. There’s a lot of scope for basic income to be a force for good. As I have argued previously, basic income can be an integral part of a capitalist economy, and it can even increase productivity by allowing workers to focus on what they’re most efficient at, rather than rewarding for the hours worked. Indeed, many of the early proponents of basic income were free-market capitalists, who would probably look at modern-day capitalism with horror and/or astonishment.

An often-ignored component of full employment is that it’s ok, and expected, for those who don’t want to work, to not work. We look down upon the unemployed and blame them for their own misfortune and lack of initiative, when they are merely a part of a functioning economy. Perhaps basic income could remove some of the emotion and stigma attached to money, or lack of it.

The 21st Century neoliberal climate has created a sense of vulnerability among workers, surviving paycheck-to-paycheck yet knowing their employment is no longer as secure as it once was. There is no safety net, and one is desperately needed. Many workers are dissatisfied with their jobs, and want to make a career change. Many of us will need to, as technology outpaces human education. If work changes, which it will, then the changes that humans must make to themselves have got to be funded somehow.

If we continue the model of the “gig economy”, we need to think beyond the precarity of work; we must consider how we are going to accommodate more workers doing fewer hours. Instead of leaving jobseekers at the mercy of the market, we can, and must, offer something to pick up where the market runs dry. Sometimes it will be plentiful, other times it will not. But we all have to eat.

Basic income is the perfect partner for the gig economy — it allows employers to exploit an abundant and necessary resource at no extra cost, and it provides security for those workers within the gig economy that might otherwise be unable to subsist on this type of employment. Whether you agree or not with the way the gig economy operates, that’s the way the jobs market is headed. If we can support workers in a way that employers (and centre-right voters) will accept, that is the simplest way forward.

There is the likelihood that basic income would eliminate the unethical practice of offering poverty wages, but more than that, UBI could increase the accountability of employers and force them to make beneficial changes. If candidates don’t want to work in sectors that betray their values, UBI gives them an option to take their labour elsewhere. This means that morally questionable work would decline or become more lucrative — or both.

With basic income, you no longer need to sell your soul — although you still have the option, if the price is right.