On World Day of So­cial Justice

Interview with Paderborn University’s Professor Martin Schneider

February 20th is World Day of Social Justice, introduced by the United Nations in 2009. But how just are current employment models, how far are we along the path towards flexible working and what about large companies’ wage policies? And finally:  What effect has the pandemic had on social justice? Martin Schneider, Professor of Business Administration with a focus on human resources at Paderborn University, has the answers.

Social justice - what does that actually mean? When is a job socially just and when isn’t it?

Professor Schneider: “Social justice is a vague term, like “freedom,” for example. It can mean different things to different people. The philosopher John Rawls says that justice is measured by how rich the poorest member of a society is. That is just one attempt at a definition among many and so radical that it is far from being universally accepted. But we can still agree on when work can be regarded as fundamentally socially just: Wages should be sufficient to live on and to acknowledge the employee’s contribution to the success of the company. Moreover, human rights should be upheld. For example, working conditions should not endanger physical integrity and employees should be paid according to the principle of “equal pay for equal work.” And lastly, employees should also have a voice, a right to have their say. Astonishing as it may seem, employment is one of the few aspects of society that are not organised democratically. A contract of employment does provide security, but it also creates a relationship of dependence and dominance. When you augment that with worker participation, for example, by electing a works council as far as possible across the board, it also increases social justice.”

Where so we stand today in terms of social justice - for example, with regard to current management structures?

Professor Schneider: “A lot of employees in Germany earn a good wage and are represented by a works council which also provides for fair working conditions. But both of these things apply principally to large companies. They are also bound by collective wage agreements and manage their employment systems professionally with salary groups, personnel development including career planning, and so on. The problem is that many employees work for smaller companies where the situation is often worse. These disparities lead to social injustice, reinforced by two developments. Large companies nowadays try to reduce their costs by outsourcing certain processes to independent service providers and using temporary workers. This means that fewer people are able to enjoy the comparably good employment systems offered by large employers, many working instead for temporary employment agencies and outsourcing companies for less pay. On top of which, a lot of companies in the service sector are neither bound by collective wage agreements nor do they have a works council. Markus Weißphal, a doctoral student at the Human Resources chair here in Paderborn is conducting research into these problematic developments.”

What is to be gained from agile working methods in this context?

Professor Schneider: “With agile working methods such as Scrum or Design Thinking, employees work together in teams and largely organise themselves. That gives employees a certain degree of co-determination: Their expertise is acknowledged and they can make decisions autonomously. Instructions and obedience then play a lesser role day to day. However, you mustn’t mistake agile working for genuine democracy in the workplace. The dependent relationship laid out in employment contracts remains unchanged. Employers can decide to end experiments into agile working at any point. And it also begs the question: If employees are making decisions and organising their own team, those are valuable management tasks - are the employees therefore also paid commensurately more? In most cases, they are not.”

Everyone has been talking about flexible working arrangements since the Corona pandemic, if not before. What advantages and disadvantages do they have?

Professor Schneider: Flexible working arrangements mean that you can work in places other than a factory or office, for example, and to a certain extent at times of your own choosing. A lot of employers used to have their doubts but the pandemic has shown that employees’ motivation and productivity tends to rise rather than fall as a result of flexible working. Employees are better able to balance their professional and private commitments. If flexible working means offering people in different stages of life the right form of working for them, that is on the face of it socially just. The disadvantage: There are many professions where neither home office nor flexible working hours actually work. This is true for most employees in hospitals, shops, care homes, logistics centres, parcel services and manual trades. Generally speaking, these are jobs that are simultaneously lower paid and involve more difficult working conditions. Increasing flexibility, therefore, threatens to open up a new gap between the fortunate knowledge workers at home with their laptops and other workers.”

What do future working environments need to take into account so that they can be truly socially just?

Professor Schneider: “Large companies’ wage policies have a certain solidarity in that employees towards the bottom end of the hierarchy earn comparatively well, at any rate more than in smaller companies which are not bound by collective agreements. For this reason: Less outsourcing and fewer temporary contracts would lead to greater social justice. Smaller companies should introduce equitable pay structures: Fair bonus systems and clear job evaluations that also appropriately acknowledge the strain of hard manual or mental work. And not forgetting opportunities for co-determination. If employees do not elect a works council for themselves, employers should set up a body to give employees a voice. Conditions in Germany are generally good. We have a social market economy where the legislature sets minimum standards. The minimum wage now fills the gap where collective wage agreements are often no longer in effect. Going forward, there will be a quota to increase the number of women on the boards of large companies. But adjustments such as this are going to remain necessary, since experience has shown that a largely unregulated employment market does not provide the social justice that the people want.

In conclusion: What effect has the Corona pandemic had on social justice?

Professor Schneider: “As is the case with most political and economic crises, the pandemic has intensified social inequality. It became immediately apparent during the first lockdown: Many of those on higher incomes were able to work comfortably from home with no change to their salaries. Which, incidentally, also applies to me. Conversely, a lot of employees on lower incomes lost their jobs in areas such as the catering trade, had to deal with pay cuts due to reduced hours or were exposed to the virus every day as key workers. School closures were equally problematic. Those children whose parents were less able to support them are the ones who have learned less in the past two years. It is safe to assume that they come from socially deprived households with parents who perhaps don't speak much German, where there isn’t money available to buy a tablet or the parents themselves didn’t attain a high level of academic education. If these learning gaps are not closed, the pandemic will affect these children’s long-term prospects of social advancement and the equality of opportunity within our society.”

[Translate to English:] Foto (Universität Paderborn): Prof. Dr. Martin Schneider spricht im Interview über soziale Gerechtigkeit.