What are the ethical issues related to subcontracting at Carleton?
In the public arena there has been a steady movement towards privatization. Jobs that were historically public-sector have been subcontracted to local, regional, national and even international companies. There has been considerable debate over the wisdom of privatization.
Proponents often argue that increased efficiency and greater market competition will yield lower cost to the public. Opponents on the other hand argue that fragmentation will lead to erosion of wages, benefits and working conditions, decreased investment and stake in local communities and less oversight and reliability. In many ways this debate is part of the larger conversation about the very nature of work and the values behind our economic structures.
Economic forces and value decisions are also visible much closer to home. Carleton is a significant employer in the Northfield area and certainly more complex than many units of government or corporations. Faculty with all their complex employment issues, administration, other staff of the college both union and non-union, subcontractors and student workers are all part of the Carleton employment picture.
From an ethical perspective, it is difficult to split out the subcontracting issue without addressing some of the larger employment questions. Clearly one of the central missions of Carleton is to educate students and the staff and structure of Carleton are organized around this mission. Although there is a general shared interest in strengthening the college among faculty, staff, administration and students, there are also some inevitable conflicts of interest. With each dollar that comes into Carleton, it is in all the employees’ interest to have the largest possible portion go to wages, benefits, and appropriate staffing levels so no one is overworked. However, every dollar that goes into staffing cannot go into financial aid, facilities, technology, etc., all of which are part of maintaining a strong college as well. Administrators (and to a lesser extent trustees) are regularly called upon to decide how these resources will be allocated.
So what criteria should Carleton apply in making these decisions? Should Carleton pay based on what the market requires or some other standard such as what is a “living” wage or perhaps what is a “just” or “fair” wage (and who decides what these are)? Who ought to have a voice in the decisions around pay, benefits and working conditions? Should the workers themselves? How can this be done apart from workers being organized? What is a healthy work environment? Is Carleton looking too much to corporate models in structuring work, or not enough? Where can we learn things that bring the work environment more in line with our ethical values?
In this context we can consider the ethics of subcontracting. Let us begin with the assumption that there are wonderful subcontractors who treat their employees very well and others that do not. The question really is whether or not there are inherent ethical issues with subcontracting in light of some of the other employment issues discussed above. I can see at least four. First, if it is a shared value of Carleton that work done here (not just by Carleton employees) is to be done under certain standards of wages, benefits or working conditions, Carleton would need a system in place that would allow them to hold subcontractors to those standards. This may or may not be realistic. Second, if Carleton places an ethical value on its employees having the ability to have an organized voice in their conditions of work, subcontracting almost always fragments the workforce and makes this more difficult. Third, if community among all the staff is a value, subcontracting makes this more difficult. Finally, if employment at Carleton carries certain indirect benefits (tuition breaks for children, access to certain events or facilities, continuing education or career development dollars, etc), subcontracting often makes these difficult to offer consistently. Individual circumstances could set up a very different scenario. Each situation would have to be evaluated against Carleton’s values.
Underneath all of these issues are the basic ethical values of Carleton around employment. What are our wage and benefit standards? Is workplace participation an important principle at Carleton? Does Carleton consider the quality of employment and the development of its workforce central to its mission? How significant is community among the staff? Can we offer things to our staff that make these jobs unique in this community? As a variety of economic forces continue to come to bear on Carleton and as the patterns of work continue to change throughout our culture, these will become increasingly significant questions.