Can you cause harm by paying workers too much?

It seems at first an odd question to ask in one of the poorest places on the planet but one that has been ever present in my time in Northern Uganda. Obviously we all want to wake up one day and everyone will be able to provide for their families, send their kids to school, afford medical care, etc but is it as simple as paying people more?

The way one arrives at asking a question like that to me is as interesting as the question itself. In my position I am able to see the benefits of above market wages in the workers I help manage but my decision to come to Africa was not limited to only helping a handful of people. It was to find the pieces of the puzzle to help all people. I that regard, I care about helping the people I employ but the real reason I care is to find a way to also help the people I currently don’t employ.

That perspective has changed things significantly. In a business, you want to be able to give your workers as much as possible but not so much as to limit your ability to grow and hire on more works. Apple for instance can offer incredible compensation and benefits to its workers because it is wildly profitable and has high margins. 31 Bits is not Apple (obviously). We have to deal with the very real tradeoffs that every business has to. In this case paying workers more and hiring more workers. In a place with rampant unemployment and even worse under employment you cannot ignore the jobs that you don’t create by paying your workers more.

But most do ignore that. It is understand to ignore something you didn’t create because you don’t have to look at it. It is not like you tell the person that you would have employed “sorry we are going to pay our workers more instead” and send them back to their squalor. You do have to look at the situation that your workers are in because you care about them, they are your workers. You want to see them benefit and thrive. If you pay them more, you do see those benefits.

Though in some ways that is a small concern. The bigger concern that I don’t know the answer to but could be potentially far worse is the effect that we may be having on the community as a whole. I asked one of my managers not long ago “Do we pay wages to the women that only white people would pay?” He didn’t give me a direct answer but the answer was obvious enough to us both. The question we struggled answering was what does that teach people we employ and the message it sends to those we don’t employ?

Add to the fact that most of the women we hired were not hired based on their skill but by their vulnerability. Through paying workers more are we teaching the people that hard work pays off? Are we showing them that skill and ability are valued? Ultimately are we giving an example that they can apply in their own lives? Or are we perpetuating the idea that the local people can’t do anything without the whites?

That is a far more dangerous concern then the tradeoffs between jobs and higher pay. If pay is too excessive it can wholly undermine the ambition of a community. To be fair, Bits is not large enough to do this on its own. In a post-war area, this potential landmine has been laid by many organizations of the years who ignore completely such questions because they are sure they are doing good. All of these people have come with the best intentions those should really cease to matter. I have a general axiom in my philosophy in development, change something too much and you will cause many problems to areas that you had no idea you were effecting.

I want my workers to be paid as much as possible but it has to be in a way that they and their peers look on it as though they have generally earned it. I increasingly fear that that is not always the case. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a phrase that has become a consistent theme in my professional career, and not just in Africa. But it is a perspective I don’t have. Jobs not created are real to me. The effects we have on the community at large are real to me. They are real to me because they are real to the people we wish to effect.


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