Rights, not charity

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Perhaps the other people look so worried because Gates is able to cut off funding and access to their life’s work simply because he has the funds to do so? ICRISAT via Flickr

Billionaires fund their pet projects while states fail and people suffer

Late last year, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he would be donating nearly all of his immense fortune to charity. He specifically mentioned that he would like to donate to organizations working on climate change and social justice issues, which on the surface is admirable. But Bezos is not the first billionaire to propose something like this.

Microsoft founder and former CEO Bill Gates used to be the richest man in the world, until he donated enough of his net worth to charity to lose that spot. Once again, this looks very admirable on the surface. Add to that the fact that Gates has also promised that, except for a small inheritance to his children, all his wealth will be donated to charity upon his passing, and it really looks like these people value charities and the culture of giving to worthy causes. However, the question has to be asked: who decides what is worthy of these billions?

Let us focus on Jeff Bezos first. Amazon is notorious for its shoddy employment practices. A few years ago, it came to light that Amazon warehouse workers work under immense time and target pressures. That one-day free shipping Prime delivery we love so much often comes at the cost of workers who are not allowed to sit for hours on end, who are given less than half an hour of break in a whole day, and let us not even get into the question of bathroom and water breaks!

On top of that, their wages are often tied to the number of parcels they ship off every hour, giving most workers even more incentive to do back-breaking work for hours without any respite. One has to wonder how the average warehouse employee, with little pay, almost no benefits, and an almost-hostile working environment feels when they hear about the boss donating billions for social justice. It almost seems to me that if Bezos wants to help the oppressed and disadvantaged, he just has to make sure his own workers are treated better and offered better compensation.

The billions that he wants to give to charity could offer excellent salaries and healthcare for every Amazon worker. We cannot even argue that charitable giving gets him a tax deduction, because so would paying his workers more. I guess it comes down to the fact that donating to charity makes someone look like a hero, but paying a fair wage to employees does not. We need to ask ourselves who benefits from that skewed perspective.

As I already mentioned, another billionaire who is already famous for his philanthropic giving is Bill Gates, founder and former CEO of Microsoft. At least when it comes to Gates, there are fewer controversies about how Microsoft employees are treated and compensated for their labour. Of course, I have to cynically point out that Microsoft mostly has to employ skilled engineers who could probably find another job without too much trouble if they hated the workplace environment they found themselves in. It is just not that easy to oppress and exploit people who have other options.

This is not to imply that Microsoft would have done so otherwise, just pointing out that at least at present, it is not an option they find themselves able to take. Moving on, though, while Gates is famous for how much he donates, there have been controversies about how his generous gifts come with strings attached. Most recently, Gates used his influence to severely restrict the patent rights for mRNA vaccines with the threat of cutting off donations on vaccine research if the patent was made available to India and other developing nations.

That is my entire point. Whether we are talking about the workplace in Amazon or access to healthcare, these are rights. What I want to see is a world where the Bezoses, Gateses, Musks, and Zuckerbergs are taxed fairly, held accountable, and the rights of the average citizen are not left to the generosity of billionaires who need some good press. Because just like how the Bezos of this world can donate billions to social justice, they can cut off funding to social justice. A world where human rights depend on the kindness of ruthless businessmen is not sustainable.

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