Egyptian blogger from Cairo.
Revolutionary Socialist.
Partner & Creative Director at ThePlanet.

Exploitation: The ethical reasoning behind my choice with clients

After numerous occasions of declining pitches for projects in the name of morality (the last of which has caused more of a backlash than normal), I was inspired by my friend Rowan el Shimi to put together this blog post through which I can comprehensively explain why I refuse to work with the majority of potential clients; what the reasoning behind it is, and why I end up favoring work with certain clients over others.

Please note that this is a blog post where I express my opinion. I don’t ask you to agree, and I don’t claim to carry the truth that has been extracted from reliable sources. In fact, I don’t care what you think about what I have to say.

Introduction

As a professional (regardless of the field), I have a bit of influence, and every decision I make counts. I’m responsible for my actions, and should stick  to the set of principles that I believe in, and follow them to lead by example. Between capitalist greed, extreme poverty, corruption favoring corporations handling millions with billions of people worldwide struggling to survive, and the lack of resources to sustain our lifestyle, we find ourselves at a horrendous state.

As Annie Leonard illustrates in her outstanding short documentary The Story of Stuff, the materials economy is set up so that we are constantly exploiting our limited resources in an ever-accelerating rate. Resources that will inevitably run out:

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Credit to Ilu (also on twitter) for introducing me to this documentary years ago

Relevant points from the documentary:

  • Natural resources are limited, and will run out very soon
  • Rich countries are using disproportionally more resources than poorer counterparts
  • Externalizing costs means that the products we buy have been paid for by natural resources and labor
  • Our consumption levels are absurd, and they desperately needs to be reduced
  • Marketing contributes to perceived obsolescence by indoctrinating the public into believing that we are not good enough, and that we need to shop to improve

Therefore, I try to avoid contributing to any entity that is responsible for products that push us deeper into the materials’ crisis. Even though I’m part of the hypocrisy myself for consuming and destroying resources from all parts of the globe (thanks to my laptop, cell phone, meat, clothes, etc.), I choose not to promote it for others to follow.

For example, I am capable of carrying out social media campaigns as well as design platforms to persuade the young audience that it is ‘cool’ to purchase a certain brand of candy. In fact, I can work hard to make that brand outdo its competition, and boast an image that many of the target audience would strive to associate themselves with. But I would never want to do that. Any product that is not essential and is harmful to our well-being is a no-no in my book, and I would never agree to work with its manufacturers, producers, distributors or sellers.

Needless to say, it is almost impossible to even consider a multinational company looking to extract resources from Egypt and send it back to Geneva and New York.

An ever bigger issue for me is exploitation of labor. The fact that there are people who work tirelessly in terrible conditions and barely make enough money to survive just so that a chosen few can continue with their lifestyles, is depressing.

Exploitation

Exploitation is broadly defined as utilizing something to benefit from it, and/or the selfish utilization of a resource as a means to an end. Many consider the term only suitable for large corporations such as Apple, where factory workers have to go through such unbearable conditions, that many commit suicide, and nothing’s improving. However, sweatshops are examples of extreme exploitation, because resources (both natural and labor) are constantly exploited, everywhere.

As Karl Marx has pointed out, exploitation is the difference between the profit generated to the owner of the business, and the compensation to the worker for his or her effort, in the form of wage. In fact, in his book, Capital, Marx came up with the precise formula to measure the percentage and the quantity of the exploitation, summarized in the following:

“The rate of surplus-value is therefore an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or of the labourer by the capitalist”

Which brings me to a pivotal point in my book: If you are making profit, you are exploiting. There is no such thing as generating profits without the exploitation of natural and, especially, labor resources. If you’re a business, your aim is to make money, and this means making the most out of your employees, and paying them the least. You could be paying them higher salaries than your competitors, but it would still be exploiting, otherwise you wouldn’t make profit to sustain yourself and would go out of business.

Providing jobs; improving lives.

The basic worker

In Egypt, an ‘office boy’ (a male dedicated to doing some cleaning, providing drinks, and running basic errands) typically makes between 500 and 700 LE a month, and is usually the first to arrive, and the last to leave. He refers to everyone as Sir (and wouldn’t dare receive equal treatment), and has to put up with potentially being told off (and sometimes yelled it) without answering back (or else he could be thrown out). The average employer would feel a form of self-fulfillment for providing a job to someone who’s under-qualified. In fact, by paying him slightly more and being friendly, he or she could be considered a philanthropist!

The following are misconceptions that come as a bi-product:

  1. The office boy is being offered a job, which is something he should appreciate
    Not if his salary is not enough to feed himself, let alone his family
  2. At least he’s being offered a job, as opposed to nothing at all
    That may be true, but that doesn’t mean his weakened position is not taken advantage of. Otherwise he’d be deemed unaffordable
  3. If he’s not happy, he could leave
    Far from true, especially given how 40% of Egyptians are on or below the poverty line, and many are unemployed and desperate
  4. He is receiving more than what many would pay him
    The might be true, but his value is determined  in a market that is entirely based on exploiting resources and making money. His value is not based on his output. When you are about to offer him a salary, why not think how he contributes to the income, and compensate him accordingly? Why do you use his market options (or lack of) as an indication, as opposed to his output?

If you are to expand this example to a larger scale, it soon becomes clear the amount of exploitation involved in large corporations that recruit thousands. For that reason, I refuse to work with clients that boast a roster of thousands of employees making minimal wages, while the owners are packing millions.

Making money

Generally speaking, I’m not at all fond of corporations that work on investments and business consultancies. The idea that a company’s sole purpose is to strategically aid other companies in making money, and benefit itself in the process, is despicable. As if exploitation isn’t enough as it is, consultancies attempt to reduce costs and boost income to make even more cash, and shove the exploitation to extreme levels.

Here’s a short clip from an interview with Noam Chomsky where he talks about self-destructive capitalism, and slave labor.

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Sadly, we are indoctrinated to believe the following:

  1. There is a bottomless pool of money out there to make
    Obviously not. It’s surprising how many can be so naive so as to believe that there’s unlimited resources to fight for. The current approach to resource usage is anything but sustainable
  2. We can all be wealthy
    Impossible. With today’s capitalist society, money is made via exploitation. You need someone with the capital, and workers to be exploited
  3. Anyone can be rich
    Not everyone. And in a country like Egypt, hardly anyone can grow beyond his or her predetermined socioeconomic background. Even if a person from a lower income background was given equal opportunity, he or she would only be able to become wealthy at the expense of the limited resources, i.e. at the expense of counterparts striving for the same
  4. It is normal for there to be rich and poor
    Now it is, but it doesn’t have to be. While a small elite of Egyptians own cars (regardless of the make), have had the opportunity to travel abroad, eat meat everyday, and have enough clothes to dispose of, the huge majority struggle to survive till the end of the month. That is not fair, and it should not remain that way

The capitalism pyramid: the capitalist tradition

Therefore, there’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ business that benefits the world more than it harms the people and resources. That is the way it will remain until the revolution takes place and everyone gets direct access to resources that are subsequently allocated fairly. However, until we reach that stage, we are still part of the system and need to make money.

Conclusion

I choose to work with companies that carry out minimal exploitation. Whenever I’m in for a pitch for any web design and/or social media project, I ask myself the following questions:

  1. Does the client make profit?
    If yes, then what resources are they exploiting, and to what extent? If not, then where do they get the money from (sometimes worse than profit-driven companies)?
  2. How many employees are there? How many partners are there?
    A school of 4 partners collaborating and doing everything between them is almost a dream come true. A company with hundreds on the pay roll is not (regardless of the nature of their business)
  3. What benefits does the client bring?
    Providing jobs is certainly not one of them. But perhaps they educate, or promote culture, or aid the art movement, or help empower people by connecting them across space and time to bypass mainstream media – there are numerous possibilities
  4. Is the exploitation little enough to be mostly made-up for by the benefits?
    Some industries will never make it altogether; such as equity, investment, insurance, business consultancies, stock brokers, etc. Others are in pole position to overcome the hurdle, such as renewable energy, academic and cultural institutions, open-source projects, etc.
  5. Would Ali Azmy approve?
    Could save you from all the above!

If the client fails to qualify, then I turn down the project take it on myself to specify why. While I have been advised to avoid such confrontation and just excuse myself without hopping on the soap box, I insist on being blunt. Firstly, I do not enjoy lying and I’m not very good at it. More importantly, I have thought long and hard to build my principles, and I feel it is my responsibility to to stick to them and promote them. I would like to think that by doing so, I’m making this world a better place. Otherwise, I’m just dust in the wind, another brick on the wall, and yet another exploiting consumerist that talks a lot, and doesn’t do squat.

The world won’t change for the better if we turn a blind eye on pressing issues like social injustice and poverty. Change takes place when we actually do something about it. That’s how revolutions happen, and I plan to be a part of it.

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12 comments

soheir

December 20, 2010

fasheeeeeeekh! HELW khara!LOVED IT ya Shalaby!

Lol @ would Ali Azmy approve it?

Tarek Shalaby

December 20, 2010

Haha! Thanks. I should’ve added “Would Soheir’s family consider it a real job? Or a temporary one, just for fun?” Thanks, NOT Fattractive!

Gigi Ibrahim

December 20, 2010

you have compiled everything that i believe in and that i like in one post, BRAVO! i love it !!!

Tarek Shalaby

December 20, 2010

Thank you very much, Gigi! I’m sure I could’ve spent more time doing some reading and gathering some more sources, but this is something that I’ve been really wanting to vent out! Glad you liked it!

MR

December 20, 2010

Good points! I run a small-medium business and these issues crop in my mind all the time. You’ve done a great job at summarizing it all together. There are things though that I’m still not too sure about:

Why do you present exploitation as necessarily bad? You could say all relationships are forms of exploitation, but some can often be made to end in win-win situations. I may selfishly utilize one of my employees as a means to an end (e.g. have them do my accounts) while they are also using me as a means to an end (they get money). If (emphasis on if) I am giving my accountant enough money for him to not only survive but also to have a relatively luxurious, comfortable life with good working conditions (yet I’m still exploiting him because basically I could pay him even more but not make any profit from his services), why is this necessarily bad? And what is the alternative?

And why does making money as a business necessarily mean making the most of my employees and paying them the least, as you say? I certainly make the most of my employees, but I don’t pay them the least, not by a long shot. Surely we can strive to have ethical businesses with smaller margins of profit?

Finally, why is providing jobs to hundreds of people so bad (or so you seem to suggest)? I get that in most industries these are despicable jobs and pay horribly and are therefore not something to write home about. But what is the alternative, given the system? Without these jobs, people would go from being poor but surviving, to living utter destitution and hunger.

Just my thoughts. Thanks.

Soheir

December 20, 2010

hahaha!:) as long as that you have a place to go for in the morning and you make money then your safe ya Tarek , Your safe. lol

Tarek Shalaby

December 20, 2010

@MR: Thank you very much for your kind words. You raise some very valuable points, and I’m enjoying reading them.

I guess you could argue that exploitation on minimal levels isn’t too bad. But your accountant does NOT exploit you, like you with him, because, like you said, he’s making you money, and not getting all of it. He might be doing well, but not as good as you are. Which is an issue of relative poverty. While it’s still not fair that he’s OK, and you’re GREAT, he’s not struggling to survive. So that’s a good start.

The alternative could be for people to collaborate together, and not have a corporate hierarchy. Then we would all work together, own the capital, and distribute it evenly (with percentages). But I’m not sure how that would work exactly. It would be similar to open-source projects, or even as in your case, small businesses with reasonable profit margins and several dedicated partners working on a cause they believe in.

When you’re providing thousands of jobs in a single company, then, not only are you exploiting at a percentage, you’re also exploiting at massive quantities (See Marx’s formula and footnote on it in the link above). Moreover, you would be beating smaller competition and they would lose their workers. Also, there would be lots produced (via all of this labour-power), for very few people (the owners) – further increasing the gap between the classes.

From what I can tell (and I have no idea what your business is about), but you are the kind of client that I would like to work with! hehe. Thanks again, I appreciate it.

MRcuz

December 20, 2010

Ali Azmy approval, jejejje.

MR makes good points. If your ideal is 4 partners, and everyone starts loving the noble principles you fight for, then you get a shit load of jobs. Except with 4 individuals, you can’t do the jobs in the time required. So what if you train, hire, pay some of that 40% under the poverty line instead of not hiring them at all.
Hiring them would be exploitation, right? Someone who knows less than you in this field, invested less time than you in this organization and provides less than your other partners cannot be entitled to equal share, how much less is a cost-benefit analysis of your own model, not the all-evil MNC kind. One that could incorporate factors such as environment and am markazy beating hospitalization, whatever the employee gets into.

If this is reasonable to you, that can it not be feasible that others have done this?

If it is reasonable (i’m assuming its not somehow – ill wit for reply) but if so, then 100s of people in a company….maybe they got a lot of jobs. its relative.

btw, if the revolucion is not global and at the same time, it wont work because of the late stage of globalized resources. rev hast simpre

Tarek Nasr

December 21, 2010

Your best post by far however I don’t agree with everything and here’s why :-)

motaz

December 22, 2010

hi tarek. thanks for taking the time to write this and to articulate your principles and the reasoning behind the work you do. as you may already know, there are many people around the world who are trying to do work, business, in a way that is equitable and non-exploitative and that somehow contributes to, rather than takes from, the world we live in. i’m not talking about CSR, i’m talking about people who want to only produce stuff (or services) that are useful and healthy and who want to do so in a way that’s fair.

i want to direct you to two examples of this kind of work. first, is bettermeans.com. in your response to MR’s comment, you suggested a sort of non-hierarchical, open-source profit-sharing business model. that is precisely what BM are all about. they are a business process management (BPM) platform/utility/tool based on a concept they call ‘open enterprise’. check them out. they just launched like a month ago. (shabab masri f amreeka, by the way; you might recognise one of the founders.)

the other is marketingforhippies.com, which is run by tad hargrave, who is a business consultant for ‘conscious’ businesses. he has a lot to say on both running a business and social engagement.

thanks again for your post. and good luck with your work!

Omar shawki

January 10, 2011

So basically the word your looking for is communism? Everyone splits. I think the world saw what happened there.

Lilia Mosconi

February 14, 2011

Hola, Talek! Te escuché en una radio argentina decir “Hasta la victoria siempre” y entré acá a saludarte y felicitarte. Y me llevé una linda sorpresa al ver que comentás un libro que traduje al español, “La historia de las cosas”.
Desde aquí seguimos con interés y alegría los sucesos en Egipto, un país que tuve la suerte de conocer hace muchos años.
¡Hasta la victoria siempre, compañero!

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