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What do you mean "Discrimination"?

Reference Books

To discriminate means to discern, distinguish or differentiate.  This broad, general sense of the word implies nothing necessarily sinister; in fact, it describes activity that may sometimes be essential to survival itself.

But what does the word 'discrimination' mean when referring to oppressive inequity?  If you check out Webster's or Oxford, you will likely find reference to the differential treatment of persons based on reasons other than merit, or a reference to discrimination of persons categorically rather than individually.  Some dictionaries will roll both meanings together into one sentence.  And it is these connotations that most people have in mind when wage discrimination is spoken of.

So, now that we are clear as to what is meant by discrimination, we can pose the following question.

If, as is the case in North America, the law dictated that employers could not use gender as a reason for wage discrimination, but if, on the other hand, the discrimination was not based on gender, or race or religion, or any other specifically prohibited form of discrimination, but instead the discrimination was based on entirely specious reasons, in other word no real reason at all, if that then made it "ok", where would the rational and logical and moral sense lie in that?

I do not raise this question merely out of idle speculation or curiosity, but rather because it would appear that today many employers are doing just that.  Knowing that they cannot legally discriminate against employees for the specifically prohibited reasons, they choose instead to seek out, or create amongst their employees, certain classes not specifically mentioned in law, by which they can exercise, and reap the financial benefits of, discrimination.  And this creative invention or discovery of classes is clearly done only with the intent of discrimination in mind, for there is no other reason for this process of classification that could result in a net profit (the prime motive in capitalist society), at least none that I can think of.

Of course to exercise discrimination for financial gain is not to do so for "no real reason at all", but financial gain is not the ostensible reason for the discrimination.  The ostensible reason for the discrimination is usually that the workers in question are not "regular", or they are not part of the "core compliment" or they are "seasonal" or "temporary" or some other such nonsense that in fact amounts to no reason at all.

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The two tier system is not new. It is important to remember that when racial, and sex discrimination was in its heyday, and could be practiced openly and with pride by citizens of note, that this was made possible because society (or at least a large part of it) found racism or sexism to be perfectly acceptable.  Of course the reason for the discrimination really had little to do with skin colour or sex, but rather had everything to do with greed and exploitation, and with gain at the expense of others.  But blatant avarice, while being the foundation of capitalism, is nevertheless so unacceptable in Christian society that one must have a different ostensible reason for ones actions, it being at the time more acceptable to paint blacks as an inferior race and to find other rationalizations or presumptions for sexism.

And nothing has changed.

Let's examine some of today's substitutes for racism and sexism and ask ourselves if these ostensible reasons make sense, or are they simply vehicles for economic discrimination.

The "Core Number" or "Employee Compliment Number".
For those unfamiliar with this corporate scam, here's how it works.  An employer simply picks an arbitrary number of employees and declares that this is the "employee compliment number" or "core number" of employees.  These employees get paid a "regular" wage and every other employee gets an inferior wage and little or no benefits.  There is no moral rational for this discrimination, and indeed no such rational is possible or even offered, we are simply not supposed to ask.  In fact phrases like "Employee Compliment Number" are deliberately contrived to sound "deep" and "scientific" in order to discourage such questions.  How is the number determined?  It is simply set at that number which is the smallest possible number that the employer can slip by the Union committee, but is large enough to be likely ratified by an effective majority of union members.  In other words like racism, in order to be fully effective it must not overly disturb the unaffected majority.

Straight Two-Tierism.
In this scam, the employer claims that although they are making record profits they simply can't keep paying the usual wages and still compete with their other operation in the next state or province, but to make things easier for current employees they are willing to apply a pay and benefit cut only to "future" employees, and if that isn't acceptable, we'll have to make the widgets in Indonesia.  Again just like in the days when racism was healthy and patriotic, the majority have to be co-opted into a crime that really benefits only the wealthy.

The Elastic Probationary Period.
This subtle discrimination is achieved by having reduced wages and benefits for "probationary employees" and then making the probationary period longer than the amount of work that seasonal employees can expect to obtain, even if this means making the probationary period a substantial part of a year.  Again, there is no moral argument for this thinly disguised discrimination; we are simply just supposed to find it acceptable.

But if pay equity is a human right, is it not the duty of the employer, to clearly justify and explain the reason and rational that lies behind the differences in any given exception?  And when an equally qualified person is doing exactly the same work under exactly the same conditions, should he or she not be entitled to exactly the same wages and benefits?  And how would one morally justify paying someone at a lesser rate just because they have the additional misfortune of being laid off from time to time and are therefore "categorized" as "seasonal" or "temporary?"

Of course this discussion naturally raises the question 'are some forms of discrimination worse than others?' with the possible implication that two-tierism is an "innocuous" form of discrimination that is acceptable under today's "economic reality".

Malcolm X once argued that the most despicable form of discrimination and prejudice was that based on one's skin colour. He suggested that a Jew, for example, could at least lie about his Jewish-ness, but that a person with a black skin was in no position to deny his racial characteristics.  Of course this argument would mean little to a person about to be cast into a Nazi gas chamber whatever their race, background or stigmata.

This example illustrates the extreme case, but most enlightened people would surely agree that racial or any other form of social or economic discrimination is an unjust insult and fundamentally wrong whether it involves persecution up to and including death, or merely involves mistreatment in the workplace.  We can argue the seriousness and severity of the case, but there is no difference in principle.

The real test of injustice is whether the victim suffers injustice. The motivation of the perpetrator is secondary.  The suffering of the victim of two-tierism is an economic reality. "Economic reality" in any other sense is not a viable excuse for economic injustice any more today than it was in the days of outright chattel slavery.

It is much overdue that we called a spade, a spade and recognized all these employment scams for what they are, violations of our Human Rights (UDHR 23 (2)).

These are international crimes against the working class, and since the working class consists of the greater majority of humankind, it is therefore no exaggeration to call them crimes against humanity.

And when Employers put these schemes forward, we should not hesitate to remind them that they are in breech of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and as Union members we should do everything we can to distance ourselves from such crimes against our fellow workers, first by not being party to, or supporting such contracts, and secondly by helping others in their struggle against such injustice by providing our support, either in word or deed, according to our ability, and thus fighting this evil by all means necessary.

In Solidarity,
John Barker

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June 2005