The Right to a Job


One of the great laments I have about those who run our government in Jamaica is that precious few of our leaders have run their own companies.

There is something sobering about running a business – a real one, with its ups and downs, cash-flow requirements, weekly payroll to meet and taxes to pay. Economies rely on entrepreneurs and business owners who are willing to expand their companies so that they help to grow GDP, reduce unemployment and give people hope for the future.

I recently read an article by Charles Krauthammer in Time magazine that gave me pause for thought, and convinced me that the situation that prevails in France is one that we Jamaicans would do well to avoid at all costs.

His essay, (Time, April 17, 2006), includes the following excerpt:

Millions of young people and trade unionists, joined by some underclass opportunists looking for a good night out, have taken to the streets again. To rise up against what? In massive protest against a law that would allow employers to fire an employee less than 26 years old in the first two years of his contract.

Basically, French youth were protesting against what some called “precariousness.” They essentially wanted the law to continue to protect them from being fired. They wanted “an absolute guarantee from the state that their very first job will be for life, with no one to challenge them for it,” according to Krauthammer.

The result of this law? Unemployment of 10%. Among young people under 26, it is 23%. One in ten kids who leave high school don’t have a job five years after taking the baccalaureate.

Furthermore, in France, not a single enterprise founded in the past 40 years has managed to break into the ranks of the nation’s biggest companies.

Krauthammer rightly notes that precariousness goes hand in hand with the very idea of being an entrepreneur – although that word has somehow become a dirty one in France. Instead, they have a country in which 76% of 15-to-30-year-olds say they aspire to civil service jobs from which it is almost impossible to be fired.

This is something – young people who are fighting for life to be made less risky, and for the government to take care of them not when they are old, or infirm, but when they are at the prime of their energy.

This all sounds to me to be upside down, and as a business owner it seems unthinkable. The worst employees I have hired or worked with are those who attempted to buffer themselves against life’s risks in inordinate ways.

When I left AT&T Bell Labs to start my own company in 1993, I did so at a time when it was the pre-eminent research facility in the world, bar none. Nobel Prize winners worked in the same building, and the perks accorded to its members made for quite an easy life for its basic researchers, systems engineers and technicians. Friends of mine at the time warned me that I might be making a mistake, and that they were opting for the safer route.

If they knew now what we all know then they may well have chosen differently.

Within a few years, AT&T was split into parts, including the members of the old Bell Labs. The name “Bell Laboratories” was passed on to Lucent Technologies, which only recently brought itself back from the brink of bankruptcy after cleaning up some massive fraud, forcing it to restate its earnings.

The division I worked for with hundreds of others no longer exists. The name Bell Labs is hardly heard nowadays – it is only a shadow of the proud entity that once existed.

In other words, my colleagues that stayed for the “safety” ended up being cast to the wind, at the whims of forces they could not control, and possessing only obsolete skills that were perfect for the old AT&T, and irrelevant in the real world.

A friend of mine who also worked in the Labs says that one of the best things that ever happened to him was that his division came close to being disbanded shortly after he joined in the late 1980’s. The few months of uncertainty taught him (much earlier than the rest of our colleagues, including myself) that he could not rely on the company, and needed to start his own. This he did, several times, until one worked.

He recently sold it for a tidy profit.

Here in the Caribbean we do not have the stifling laws of the French, although we do have unions that are quite aggressive in their defense of worker’s rights. At times, their aggression is misplaced, and they can end up defending rights that should not be defended.

My concern is that our leaders of government who have never run companies do not understand the nature of business, and when they start to support the individual’s “right to a job” they do not understand what they are saying. It seems to me that a job is a privilege, not a right, and that a person has as much right to job as they do to a spouse.

The French laws are promoting a lie, and the French people are paying for its promotion in high unemployment and stagnant growth.

As a business-owner, if faced with that law I can freely confirm that I would simply never hire employees covered by that law.