‘New Things’ at the Golf Club.

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One can only hope that Brian will insist that Martyn Gibson pay his own drinks bill at the Golf Club. Martyn has been give a mandate on behalf of the owners of the club (BL) to review the business model in the absence of a general manager; he has taken this as giving him authority to make himself thoroughly unpleasant to Kathy (who manages the hospitality) with a glass constantly in his hand. Some of his criticisms are probably justified; Kathy probably has reason to be defensive about a management style that has favoured treading water over actively seeking to develop the business. But some of Martyn’s solutions seem to be brutal and may be counter-productive: will customers continue to eat at a place that offers smaller portions than the last time they lunched there? Do you improve takings by changing the menu without any market research?

Martin is determined to drive down the costs of the enterprise. His belief that there was excessive waste in the operation was belied by the data that Kathy presented to him, so he turned his attention to the staffing level. He has blocked all recruitment (despite Kathy having dismissed the bar manager) and decreed that each shift should be staffed by two fewer workers than has been the case until now. Kathy has the unenviable task  of telling employees that their hours (and therefore their wages) are to be cut. Which means (as surely Martin must know) that those who rely on their earnings to pay their rent or mortgage or to meet other necessary bills have had their lives made much more difficult.

However, Martyn might answer (if he could be bothered to engage with the issue as he adds ice to his G&T), this is a common dilemma for business leaders. Cut staff hours and employees struggle. Fail to cut costs and the business ceases to be viable; before long there is no business and the mortgage-payers are unemployed.

It is clear to the Christian that Martyn has missed something in his analysis. His argument is based entirely on ‘the bottom line’; his only concern is how to prevent the golf club haemorrhaging money or (as we are not told how critical the situation is) how to turn a very small profit into a much larger one. Kathy (whom Martyn derides as a ‘bleeding heart’) is more concerned about the human cost – what these policies are doing to the individuals concerned and to relationships in the workplace.

In this she is in line with a theological approach. In 1991, Pope John Paul II published the encyclical Centesimus Annus. The hundredth year of the title was the centenary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the papal response to the economic and political situation in the late 19th century. As John Paul reminded us, the fundamental consideration in matters relating to the employment of people by a business is the inherent dignity of human beings. This dignity comes from the place that God accorded to humankind in creation and to the image of God which each human being carries.

That dignity is not found in the individual alone but in the community of persons. Work should contribute to that dignity; human beings find their sense of worth affirmed as they use well the gifts they have been given and the resources of creation which have been placed at their disposal. Within that understanding, the profit motive of business is not to be dismissed or condemned. On the contrary: profit is a sign of resources being used effectively and can be an indicator of human beings working together in a way that fulfils their calling:

“The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication  that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that  productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs  have been duly satisfied.”

However, Martyn Gibson take note:

“… profitability is not the only indicator of a  firm’s condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and  yet for the people — who make up the firm’s most valuable asset — to be  humiliated and their dignity offended. Besides being morally inadmissible, this  will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm’s economic efficiency.  In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is  to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in  various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a  particular group at the service of the whole of society. Profit is a regulator  of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral  factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least  equally important for the life of a business.”

(Quotations are from the English translation of Centesimus Annos: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus_en.html accessed Aug 25th 2013)

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Are things getting better for dairy farmers?

DSCF5531Tony cannot help but be struck by the irony. Just after the Bridge Farm cows are sold, the farm gate price for milk rises. The average price paid by the ‘registered milk purchasers’ is now just shy of 31p per litre. However, for all that Brian may be rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of the profits Borchester Land is set to make from the vast quantities of milk that the new dairy is set to produce, many farmers are still not happy and argue that they need at least 35p per litre both to cover the cost of production and enable them to continue to invest in their operations.

For most people in Britain, the price of milk is not what is paid to farmers but what they have to pay for the ‘daily pinta’. Though in many cases, it’s the weekly 6 pinta from the supermarket. Those residents of Ambridge (probably the silent majority) who buy their milk that way will not have seen a price rise (apparently 4 pints still retail at about £1.25). Those to whom Jazzer is delivering know that value is not the issue. Earlier in the year, Mike reluctantly agreed to Ed’s plea for an increase in the doorstep price. We’re not told what it is, but 80p a pint would seem to be a likely figure. So there is another irony in all this: Ed and Emma’s economic peer group are unlikely to pay (or to believe that they could afford to pay) 80p for a pint of milk.

The ethical issues raised by the price of milk are complex. It is, we might argue, unjust that anyone should be required to produce food for others at a material loss to themselves. If the milk purchasers pay less than the cost of production at the farm gate, that has to be wrong. On the other hand, milk is a basic foodstuff and an ingredient in a number of ways in many products. The price of many more goods than milk, butter, cream, yoghourt, and cheese, would be affected should there be a major readjustment. There is a danger if poorer people had to pay much more for milk products, the diets of their children would suffer. It is, we might argue, unjust that anyone should struggle to buy the most necessary of goods.

Perhaps the root of the disquiet is that we focus on the price as it is inevitable that a discussion of a market issue will. The ethical issue, the justice question, then becomes about ensuring that neither producer nor consumer is exploited and the answer is to be found in a narrow corridor of agreement that suits both. Moreover, there is an implication that mass production is necessary to keep the price low and that which Ed and Mike or Pat and Tony would describe as ‘quality’ is on offer only to the better off. A broader conversation would ask questions about how the supply of basic foodstuffs can and should operate, so that alongside price questions about quality, taste, and farming methods become part of the discussion.

One of the powerful Old Testament images is of the promised land ‘flowing with milk and honey’. The implication it that these are the blessings of life for all God’s people to enjoy. The gift of the land accompanied the gift of the Law, the purpose of which was in part to ensure that none of God’s people was exploited and that none went without the necessities of life. The result of keeping the Law was to be celebration in the land that God had given. It is easy to wax lyrical about the delight of golden butter on fresh bread, of cream over fruit, of children enjoying a glass of cold milk. But (unless your ethical decision is to be a vegan) there is a sense that those things are pleasing to God. Whether the price of milk at the farm gate tops 31p or 32p per litre, that’s the real issue.