Janice Kennedy: Foreign workers and national brand loyalty

To eliminate Canadian jobs by hiring cheaper temporary foreign workers, igniting an angry firestorm across the country — or not: that is the question.

And a fascinating one it is, too. With Canada’s largest bank in accelerated damage control, the ensuing show has been riveting. Although RBC initially defended its decision to axe Canadian workers and outsource their jobs, the bank has now changed its tune.

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When CBC broke the story, RBC’s defence was that “new efficiencies” would ultimately “enhance the client experience.” Then it morphed into a swipe at the media (they never tell the full story, complained RBC head honcho Gord Nixon), and by week’s end, RBC had taken out full-page ads in the papers to apologize.

The opened can of worms has led to political debate, with government critics charging that Conservative policies have facilitated such questionable outsourcing, a practice that is itself not uncommon. And it’s also sparked a debate on corporate responsibility.

For example, William Watson — McGill economics professor, RBC client and conservative columnist — seems to think the only serious corporate responsibility is making money. Putting human resources on the same marketplace level as wheat exports, he wrote in the Ottawa Citizen that he doesn’t want his bank becoming “an employment agency for Canadians … If RBC can do something cheaper and better via outsourcing, it would be negligent not to.”

Which I think, with respect, is nonsense. If he’d had a wonderful cleaning lady for 10 years, one with three kids to support, would he fire her to hire a newcomer who worked for less?

Such positions offend the intelligence because their boilerplate justifications for sleazy behaviours — they’ll generate jobs, stimulate the economy, or, uh, enhance client experiences — are obviously transparent euphemisms for “Who cares? This means more for our shareholders and bigger bonuses for us.”

More critically, they offend the collective social conscience, sweeping aside the essential moral compass that guides any civilized society. We may not call corporations “people,” as the U.S. Supreme Court did last year for all the wrong reasons, but we know they have legitimate, serious social responsibilities.

A corporation is indeed only as ethical as its current management, but it exists in society, makes its money from that society and, thanks to that society’s elected government, is given tax breaks, incentives and other preferential money-making opportunities.

How could anyone ever believe that business doesn’t have a duty to the entity that nourishes it? That it must only turn a profit, ignoring the roots that have given it life? That it doesn’t need to do good — or even simply no harm?

But here’s the conundrum. Because they’re not actually human, corporations do not have a natural soul, altruistic impulses, loyalty, national interest. They take ethical shortcuts because they’re the shortest route to the prize, exploiting whatever soft spot is available.

Look at your morning coffee. A true Canadian drinks it in a brown cup labelled Tim Hortons — or so the company wants you to think, trademarking itself as “Canada’s Favourite Coffee.” Tugging aggressively at nationalist heartstrings, Tim’s promotes itself on billboards across the country with the slogan, “It’s Our Canada, Our Coffee.”

At least in English. In French, presumably for a market with potential soft-sovereignty leanings, “Our Canada” and “Our Coffee” have been rebranded as “le café préferé des gens d’ici.” The current promotion asking customers about their “Canadian coffee run” asks in French about “votre extraordinaire tourneé de cafe Tim.”

So much for “Our Canada.”

None of this is to say that responsible companies don’t exist. But they don’t get to be responsible without a lot of regulation, consumer expectation and rigorous social oversight.

If the questionable ethics of money-making are not under constant scrutiny, morally insupportable things happen.

The RBC affair (although RBC is certainly not unique) has been a timely reminder of a recurrent reality. It’s also been a lesson for those touchingly credulous souls, mostly conservative, who remain squeamish about regulating the marketplace. Put your faith in big business, they say. It can be trusted to do the right thing.

Sure. But as the latest tempest in our Canadian teapot makes clear, it can’t. And without oversight, it never will.

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