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Should Trapped Miners Be Paid?

Most people don’t expect to be paid when they’re not doing work. Sure, most people get paid during coffee breaks, and lucky folks get paid vacations. And some people get paid sick days. But what about when you’re not working for months on end? Does any employer have an obligation to pay you under those […]

Most people don’t expect to be paid when they’re not doing work. Sure, most people get paid during coffee breaks, and lucky folks get paid vacations. And some people get paid sick days. But what about when you’re not working for months on end? Does any employer have an obligation to pay you under those conditions? What about when you’re not working, but physically at work, for months on end?

That’s the issue faced by 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet below ground, in a collapsed Chilean mine.

Here’s the story, written by Nick Allen for the Daily Telegraph, but featured in the Ottawa Citizen: Trapped miners may not be paid

The 33 Chilean miners trapped underground may not be paid for months while rescuers try to reach them, leaving their families with no income.

The San Esteban company, which operates the mine, has said it has no money to pay wages and is not even taking part in the rescue.

It has suggested that it may go bankrupt and its licence has been suspended.

Evelyn Olmos, the leader of the miners’ union, called on Chile’s government to pay the workers’ wages from next month….

My initial impulse: yes, of course the miners deserve to get paid. Granted, they’re not exactly doing productive work, but that’s not their fault. Even though they’re not working, they are in fact still on the job. The problem, of course, is that the company seems financially incapable of paying them, not just unwilling. Legal means can be attempted, but if it’s really true that the company is bankrupt — well, you can’t get blood from a stone. (Note also that, for what it’s worth, the mine’s owners have asked the miners for forgiveness.)

So that leaves the government (i.e., the citizens) of Chile. Should they pay? Now, to be clear — and this is a crucial distinction — I’m not just asking whether it would be a good thing if the miners end up getting paid. I’m asking whether Chilean taxpayers have an obligation to pay them. I think the answer to that is less clear than the question of whether a financially-capable company would have an obligation to pay them. Now, this isn’t a public policy blog, it’s a business ethics blog, so I don’t often delve into what constitutes the morally-best decision for government. But it’s worth thinking about what principles might apply to this case not just from the point of view of government’s obligations to citizens in need, but from the point of view of government’s obligations to take up the slack when industry undertakes dangerous operations that can end up requiring considerable financial resources when things go wrong. Is government’s willingness to clean up the mess part of what lets mining companies put miners at unreasonable risk in the first place? Or should we think instead that the government’s willingness to help out is just part of the insurer-of-last-resort role that we want government to take on, and that allows all sorts of companies (responsible or otherwise) to be in business in the first place?

As a post-script, I should point out that the moral parallels between the Chilean mine rescue and the BP oil spill cleanup, in this regard, are striking.

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Also of interest, on the Research Ethics Blog:
Could Research be Done on the Trapped Miners?

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