As I’m taking out the rubbish bags for collection early on a Thursday morning I notice two men walking up the street. They’re easily distinguishable from the other occupants of the road that are picking through the refuse before the rubbish truck arrives in order to salvage anything of value, usually for recycling but also, I suspect, for eating. These two stand out from the rest because they are wearing what seem to be similar brand new post-office red t-shirts with crisp white writing. I recognize one of the two as a man that habitually stands within the traffic intersection a few blocks from our house, positioned at the lights in the middle of two lanes. He is a beggar. He is one of the many people that spend their days asking for donations from motorists in order to pay for daily food and shelter. This is verified by the t-shirt that announces: “TODAY I am not begging”.
I’ve heard about these t-shirts from some of my pupils. This is what they look like:
The t-shirt also has the text “The more tags I get, the more I earn” followed by the business that is sponsoring the initiative and the correct hashtag to use when posting.
My interest being piqued, I decided to play along. Both gents immediately acceded to my request for a photo and I assured them that I would publish it as requested. I did, but I did so hesitantly. I wasn’t so sure why, but there was something nagging at the back of my conscience. In any event, I followed through but made sure to indicate my trepidation.
What has transpired since is the beginning of a conversation that I believe needs to be had with regards to what ostensibly appears to be nothing more than a kind of philanthropic attempt at changing the material existence of these beggars. It is somewhat clearer to me now why I was initially unsure about participating in this seemingly harmless and even positive act of charity and kindness. What is not so clear is why I am still questioning it while there are those on either side of the argument that hold quite strong convictions, one way or another.
Let me say from the outset that I am convinced that this not an act of outright exploitation. I don’t think that it is that clear cut. I am equally convinced, however, that it should be critically engaged with in order for those most affected by it to derive some real benefit. What I mean is that it might be doing more harm than good. I’m not sure, that’s why I am exploring it here.
The beggars that are wearing these t-shirts are in the worst of situations: fellow humans, capable of participating in society that have been incapacitated by their material reality. Those that I spoke to all wanted work before they wanted charity. They know that they have more to offer and they suffer the apparent indignity of having to ask others for help.
The right to dignity is legislated through Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution. The Bill of Rights Article 10 reads: “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”
The right to work is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 23.1 reads “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”
It is in the interest of establishing a legitimate foundation for this conversation that I think it important to make mention of these two notable achievements in the history of human social consensus. Here is where I think that the crux of my crisis of conscience rests, here is where the big question that I am struggling with can be defined: are the right to dignity and the right to work as legislated in these two documents fully satisfied in this instance? The jury seems to be somewhat divided on the matter.
The beggars are not formally employed, as far as I can tell from the conversations that I have had with them. This means that they are not protected by the labor laws that support their right to dignified work. They also seemingly have no control over the usage rights of their images. What sort of control do they have here in terms of the terms of their “employment”? What sort of recourse do they have should the arrangement not work out? How exactly are they being compensated and what exactly are they being compensated for?
None of those answers are easy to determine from the information that is out there. Suggestions of suitable remuneration vary from “a meal and a loose cigarette and the potential for further employment” to “R100 a day and a meal”. I once worked in promotions handing out flyers at traffic lights. I got a lot more than these guys do and that was some time ago. There seems to be a kind of commission agreement with regards to how much response an image generates, but again it is not clear from the conversations that I have had with some of the “employees”. The business has stated that this is not a “campaign” but rather an “initiative”, suggesting that it is an altruistic move rather than one driven by capital concerns. Again, the prominent placement of the brand in all of this makes that determination unclear.
On the one side there is the position that seems to be taken by the majority of those that support the initiative. For the most part, judging by the reactions on social media and the buzz that the t-shirt campaign is generating, it seems that many people see this as a very positive way of providing a type of informal employment for the beggars. They seem satisfied that this is in effect a recognition of the dignity that comes from having employment, from not having to beg (“TODAY I am not begging”). Media releases about the campaign suggest that the business behind it is being driven by a philanthropic goal to “elevate this less fortunate group of people” and again “to elevate and uplift this very neglected sector of…society”. So far, it all seems fairly harmless and in most regards positive. Interviews with the beggars themselves indicate not only their support but also their satisfaction. The campaign appears to be driven by a genuine desire to see these people rise out of their poverty by providing them with informal employment.
This is where the pendulum swings, however.
The business behind this campaign also states “This community based project for the less [fortunate] upliftment aims at empowering those individuals to become working citizens of society”. This indicates that accepting the t-shirt is a kind of employment agreement, that what they are in effect doing is working for the business by promoting it.
One of the many problems with this is that the t-shirt only works if the person wearing it is perceived to be begging or a beggar. Unless the person wearing the shirt is in the street, at the intersection, in their usual position asking for handouts then the campaign falls flat. The beggars continue to beg, despite the shirt’s message to the contrary. If the public do not recognize them to be needy or in need of support (by them occupying that space in the traffic) then there will be no reason to respond. In addition, it must be noted that if these individuals are not occupying those spaces then there is no opportunity for the business to promote itself. If, for example, the business was to use the budget that they have allocated for this initiative to employ the beggars directly (to get them off of the street) then there would be no marketing return on the cost outlay. The beggars would still benefit from having a job but the business would get no exposure for it.
So now the question arises: if the success of the initiative is predicated on these people remaining in the street, can it legitimately claim to be empowering them? To be uplifting and elevating them? It becomes an issue of either ethical employment or exploitation. Are they in effect being employed to beg?
A repeated concern raised by those that oppose the initiative has to do with the exploitative nature of using the desperate need of these beggars in order to coerce them into joining the campaign. Supporters claim that “no one is forcing them to do it” and that “they must be happy with it”. Fair enough, that is an easy assumption to make but not necessarily objectively verifiable. I’m sure that no one is forcing them to do it, but their situation doesn’t exactly allow for much choice, does it? Are they happy with it or are they doing what they are used to which is taking whatever they can get in the hopes that there will be more tomorrow? The question of whether or not the business is leveraging this situation for its own good as opposed to offering a more direct route out of unemployment is a legitimate one.
The issue is about whether the business involved, possibly in a genuine attempt at just doing some good, is in effect contributing to the problem by keeping these participants in a position of perpetual poverty. In conversation with the Head of Business Studies at the school that I work at I was introduced to the concept of “being paid in poverty”. It basically speaks to sustaining the lifestyle of the employee without providing the means of transcending that lifestyle. It was suggested that this is in some way a breach of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. I return again to that paradoxical notion that these people are being hired to be unemployed.
I’m still not sure where I stand on this issue and my conflict is this: by posting that image am I supporting the beggar, am I supporting the business, or am I supporting both?
By promoting the brand I am getting them to give this person the meal that they need, but I have no way of controlling that relationship and I have to trust that it is a legitimate one. It also does nothing to lift the beggars out of their situation, but neither does my hooking them up from my own pocket. I’m basically getting the business to feed them as I would, by advertising for them online. I don’t have to pay directly but I still have the satisfaction of supporting. I feel less guilty and it didn’t cost me, win win.
By opposing the initiative I am not impeding the business from supporting this person, I am simply objecting to the possible exploitation inherent in the situation. The business could still support them but without leveraging it for marketing purposes. However, enough opposition to it could mean that the business ends the campaign for fear of getting negative publicity. That means that the beggars lose out on a guaranteed daily meal. So I win some kind of moral victory at the expense of the truly vulnerable.
I’m still not sure where I stand on this issue. It seems to be more about my own sense of right-or-wrong. Those two men are getting a daily meal and that’s great. But they also asked me after taking their photo if I had a small something, to help them out. That fiddled with the filter a bit.