how speaking different languages hurts workers

This post is not about multi-cultural, diverse workplaces. The type you find in aged care, security cleaning or hospitality.Rather it is about how we can use language in ways that meaning is lost or discarded.

Recently, Fair Work Australia (FWA) introduced changes to retail and hospitality award that cut wages for workers in these industries. The basis of this decision was the ‘disutility’ experienced by these workers.

Utilitarianism has been described as ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’ (Jeremy Bentham ) and the ‘needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’ . The two most famous exponents are Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

In contrast, most Unionists articulate a rights-based ethical system ( theorists include John Locke or John Rawls) . That is clearly articulated in much of the Unions arguments.

These two theories of ethics are not interchangable, there is no grand theory of ethics, if there was most of the Philosophy departments at Universities would be out of a job. It highly problematic and flawed to argue over an issue from two different perspectives, exactly what has happened in the penalty rates case (this is not to say the proof does have some interchangeability).

Both of these ethical theories translate into political theories, theories of difference we see in the Australian political arena. FWA and the Union speaking two different ‘languages’ is not going to win our case, we need to adjust our ‘language’ in order for our voices to be heard – in the sense of being understood – ( the social and economic case for hospitality workers is compelling). To have our voice, our ethical ‘language’ to be heard is another matter, that requires our political attention.

By creating this disjuncture of language the Union has lost the case in defending workers interests. Utilitarianism places value on peoples rights that rights based arguments avoid. When presented by persuasive evidence by employer group , FWA conceded to their demands. The Union response was weak, presenting only limited case examples, some that were thrown out due to irrelevancy. This was an unforgivable oversight.

This conflict of theory has impacted millions of workers livelihoods, one that could have been overcome by simple understandings of ethical frameworks, the type of understandings most University humanities programs offer.





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