It takes an unusual mental shift this year to return to the usual routine of daily life, partly because we are not beating the competing forces among “shifting,” “new” and “tradition and precedent” approaches to the lives we lead.
One of the issues that has come up with the newness of 2022 is the slow realisation in industrial relations that many of us, myself sometimes included, have muddled the distinction between “equity” and “equality.”
As an avowed feminist/human rights advocate, as my parents amusedly described me from the age of three or four and my teachers, with even more amusement, from the age of a very assertive seven, I insisted that girls were equal to boys and anything that boys could do, we could do too. “So there!” (I had a brother by then who was the very light from the sun as far as our parents were concerned: the first boy born in that generation, where six brothers were competing for the first son to carry on the family name.)
Equality was hard to come by in that situation and even more strongly claimed. So when, in history class, I read the slogan in the American Constitution that went, as near as I remember it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, such as Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” I acted as though I had invented them myself instead of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin or both.
Equality meant a lot.
It took me a few years to notice that the words, “and women” had been inadvertently omitted between “all men” and “are created equal.” And a few years more to understand that it was not inadvertent at all.
Equality did not exist in the Western world under democracy. Power did.
Then I was astounded, when I read the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx in a philosophy class and learned that Communism, which I had been taught as a child was evil, declared its belief as to how people should be treated was “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need,” which was what I thought Christianity and Islam were proposing – charity and zakat and all that.
My philosophy professor was an unusually patient and unusually good teacher. He didn’t answer my questions; he sent me out to read newspapers and attend economics lectures until I noticed that, one, the Communist Manifesto, in words as well as action, omitted the “her” when it spoke about needs and abilities; and, two, in communist societies people did not actually give, according to what they had, to those who had less and were in need. Power was what determined who got what.
And power, as one young man pointed out to me this week, was achieved by force.
Equality is when everyone is treated in the same way without consideration of differences between them. And equality should be established by principle, which does not depend on force.
At work, it could mean that everyone in the department gets the same year-end bonus if the department has achieved its goals, with no distinction between lesser achievers, high achievers and non-achievers.
It is a situation where every individual is given the same rewards and opportunities for training and promotion, rights and responsibilities. It is impractical in an employment situation where, because of necessary conditions of employment, people are given different job responsibilities.
Theoretically, every employee, as the naval term says, “from “captain to cook,” is bound by the same policies and procedures, but, in industrial relations terms, there are always “mitigating circumstances" to be taken into consideration which distinguish one situation and one employee from another.
No two are ever exactly the same. And when these mitigating circumstances are taken into consideration, and justifiably so, equality changes into equity.
Equity, in industrial relations, to distinguish it from its definition in the world of finance, implies justice and fairness (that is not a pun). And that means that differences in training, education, understanding, experience, and skill must be measured, valued, and acknowledged.
People's needs, for training, opportunities for practice, and resources will vary. People who are disabled in one way may be more able in other ways than the standard “temporarily abled” are, since none of us avoids the risk of being disabled in one way or another over a lifetime of work.
Work does not differ that much from governance on a national level. So equity, which provides opportunities to learn and progress at work in accordance with individual differences, does perhaps come as close to equality as is possible in life.
We are yet to find out what this means in reality as “long covid” starts to affect the hundreds of thousands of employed covid-surviving people who are managers and workers in our economy.
We do not know yet what, or how much what is being termed by the medical fraternity as the pandemic of different levels of mental illness. They are as yet unrecognised as the consequences of physical illness and repetitive pandemic lockdowns are only now manifesting themselves.
Nor, we are told by the medics, do they yet know the physical or nervous-system effects of repeated vaccinations. No one has yet completed the research, although it is ongoing.
Industrial relations going forward may demand a deeper level of understanding of what equity involves than we now have.