The governments of alternative poor countries

According to Shue, the six indicators that a “cost” factor is actually a ‘harm” factor where use of foreign labor is concerned are the following:  a) the damage actually done is physical; b) the potential damage is not simply physical; it is serious and possibly fatal; c) the damage that is risked is irreversible; d) the potential physical damage to the workers is undetectable without medical care to which the workers have no access; e) the damage is unpredictable for the victim, even probabilistically, without a level of knowledge to which the workers have no access; and lastly, f) the undetectability and unpredictability of the damage are avoidable at the option of the firm’s management. By describing harm as “unavoidably undetectable”, the author meant that the harm inflicted on the people remains undetected until it grows to such a serious and grave proportion that will render the harm discoverable by the victim. This happens all the time to people with no access to doctors whose treatment and gadget would have made possible the early or timely detection of the harm. Thus, the undetectability of the harm would have been arrested or addressed if doctors are around and willing to do regular checks on the physical condition of the employees.

Since this is not at all the case of such poor people in their poor surroundings, such undetectability – instead of becoming something that can be acted on and thus, avoided – becomes unavoidable in nature. When Shue writes that poor countries face an “analogous choice” as they compete for foreign investment, he means to say that when the governments choose to allow harmful labor practices to be exercised by foreign companies operating in their countries, such choice they made are somewhat similar to the choice made by the firms as they implement harmful policies in their operations. The government’s analogous choice is based on its fear of losing the investing company’s operations to another country that will allow such harmful practices.

Thus, the government of one poor country will require foreign companies operating in their territory to put up manufacturing plants that will be safe and healthy working areas for its people only if the governments of alternative poor countries will impose the same rules, thereby not lessening his own country’s attractiveness as a site for low-cost operations. On the other hand, the company’s similar choice is to get on with their harmful practices since they mean cheaper production costs. The management will consider looking out for their employees’ health and safety by opting to use more expensive but safer equipment and gadgets only if other companies will do the same.

Thus, the company will choose to do the right thing and will be willing to incur increased costs only if all their competitors will incur added costs also – thereby ensuring that their finished products will not be more expensive than the others, and therefore will be marketable. The company Unocal possessed neither form of responsibility in Myanmar. If the company possessed responsibility through ability, it would have effected changes in the way the local villagers were treated and compensated for the construction of their pipeline. Instead, as stated in the case, they looked the other way while the villagers were intimidated into working on the project by violent means such as rape and torture. Indeed, Unocal was not actively engaged in the abusive acts committed. But they could have done something about it; instead, they did nothing.

If Unocal possessed responsibility through complicity, they would not have counted as perks for their decision to invest in Myanmar the savings generated by such cheap labor obtained through abusive ways. The Unocal people well knew about the violence and pain inflicted on the workers. Knowledge of it placed them in positions to put a stop to it all. In fact, they had the power to do what was right and choose fair and just means of having their pipeline constructed. Still, they did not. Everybody who is aware of the unsafe and unhealthy conditions of existing working places should do something about it. The collective effort from all concerned parties would have better chances of pushing for the needed changes.

The workers should voice out their rights to safe and healthy working places; the company should be responsible enough to do the right thing without worrying about the added costs; the government of the foreign country should impose applicable rules to look after the health and safety of their constituents; the American government should likewise mandate companies setting up operations in poor countries to provide for their employees’ health and safety; international safety and health organizations should help pressure concerned parties to do their role; then, the individual American consumer should take seriously their responsibility through complicity by being in the know and by actively refusing to patronize products of the guilty companies. The communitarian theory rules that the community is valuable not merely as a means to the protection of individual rights, but also as a positive human good.

The community has a responsibility to promote the good of its members. Under this theory, then, employees of companies with unsafe and unhealthy working policies should as a community feel responsible for each other’s good health and well-being. This sense of community should trigger moves for the employees to have a dialogue with the company management regarding their condition in the working place, to request their government to support their cause, to further seek the intervention of the American government and international health organizations, and to disseminate information about their situation so that the end consumers would be aware of it and be driven to do their part.