Strange fruits are hanging in the streets of Yonsei. The red and white banners all over the campus are written by the cleaners protesting the unreasonable orders, breach of the Labor Standards Act, disapproval of labor unions and unfair labor practices. The fact that these protests have occurred cyclically in recent years, not only at Yonsei but also other universities, suggests that this issue is not a temporary problem that can be solved with ease.
Officials from the universities often confer responsibility to third party cleaning service companies. When universities are faced with funding shortages, this inevitably leads to restructuring of cleaning personnel or deteriorating working conditions. The schools’ claims, in the words of John Rawls, would be considered as “perfectly rational” but also “highly unreasonable.” While it is perfectly rational for universities to cut costs, their propositions to the cleaners are difficult to label as reasonable suggestions.
Reasonableness, according to Rawls, could be specified in two basic aspects. First, a reasonable person or entity would suggest fair terms of cooperation and willingly follow them when they are assured that others, who are of equal status, would do the same. For instance, if two equal students A and B are preparing for a group presentation, they would suggest standards of cooperation that would be mutually accepted by the other and will follow those standards if both parties could agree. Those terms could be justified, since equal entities have agreed upon them and is therefore reciprocal, meaning they are impartial but also beneficial to those who follow them. Moreover, reasonable agencies are units of responsibility, and take responsibilities when the reasonable terms of cooperation are broken. Suppose A and B decided to each prepare for half of the presentation. This means A would be responsible for half of the presentation and would be held accountable if he or she could not complete the part. Simply put, while rationality is a tool for promoting one’s profit, reasonableness is a tool for one to communicate with others.
Following these definitions, it is difficult to claim that universities are reasonable in dealing with the cleaners. The university, first of all, suggests terms of cooperation that the cleaners would not have agreed to if they were equal. Even though one might interpret the cleaners’ decision to initially work as agreement to the terms of cooperation suggested by the university, this interpretation fails to recognize that the cleaners, who are paid minimum wage and often have other jobs to maintain their livelihoods, are hardly in an equal position with the university and might have involuntarily chosen to work.
Moreover, it is doubtful whether the university is abiding by the initial agreement made with the cleaners. If what the protestors are accusing is true, and the university had come up with a fairly reasonable agreement of cooperation in the first place, current conducts such as the breach of Labor Standards Act or disapproval of labor unions can only be understood as negligence of the initial agreement. Since the cleaners, no matter how desperate they may be, would not have agreed to terms of cooperation that would disparage their basic rights, such conducts can only be understood as failures of the university to execute the initial agreement.
The issue of responsibility also suggests that the university is being unreasonable to its cleaners. The university is unwilling to take responsibility for the harsh working conditions of the cleaners, arguing that it is the cleaning service companies who should be taking the burden. Even though this might be true, it would still be difficult to argue that the university is being reasonable, since their agreement with the cleaning service companies is part of the problem. By deciding to retain the lowest bidder, the university pressured cleaning service companies to cut down costs, leading them to create harsh working conditions or restructure personnel. The fact that the university could have alternatively agreed to a bidder that vowed to behave reasonably to its laborers suggests that the university at least shares some of the blame.
While it may be true that the university is suffering from financial difficulties, this does not not justify their actions to be unreasonable to the cleaners by deteriorating their working conditions and basic rights. Therefore, by being more reasonable, the university will be able to create a Yonsei community in which every individual would gain mutual benefits by following an impartial standard of cooperation and each taking responsibility.