Rebekah asks the question:

Is it morally permissible to shop online (for items other than food or other basic necessities) during the pandemic? The basic dilemma is 'helping to keep the economy afloat' vs contributing to high levels of demand that may place low-paid factory workers, manufacturers and delivery drivers at risk.

Marinus Ferreira responds about why it is right to worry about the delivery drivers, warehouse staff, and front-of-house staff for large companies, why supporting smaller, local businesses is less of a problem, and the two different ways we can try and make things better.

You imagine that what prompted Rebekah to ask this are the reports that, while most of us are struggling financially with the severe restrictions on movement and commerce, many companies are actually reaping huge windfall profits, especially those that make use of online delivery, often while simultaneously putting the squeeze on the people working for them and campaigning for financial aid from governments when they are last in line for paying tax. There is not just the cynical attempts to profit off of enormous social upheaval, but a willingness to pass on the risks and stresses of dealing with the epidemic to the most vulnerable people: the delivery people who have to deal with the public, and the back-of-house workers who have to work in close quarters and handling lots of materials that have shipped from all over the world. It is these people who are at the highest risk of infection, even though they receive the smallest slice of the rewards of the business they are essential to. Though Rebekah doesn't mention these, there is often similar worries about how large supermarkets are benefiting from the lockdown, because they are specifically exempted from being locked down and have the resources to adapt to and make use of the financial opportunities of the upheaval in a way that smaller, independent stores often don't, and just as delivery drivers are put at significantly higher risk with no or insufficient extra reward, just so for cashiers and shelf packers who are just as essential. The question is whether, by making use of such services more than is absolutely necessary, we are complicit in what looks a lot like the exploitation of these workers. And we should not exploit people.

Firstly, there is a large difference between supporting smaller, more local companies (or trade or upcycling between individuals) and buying from large companies. Firstly, the smaller and local the company you're buying from, the more the money you spend will stimulate your economy. This is because the less money you have, the larger proportion of it you spend (whereas multinational corporations often have millions or billions of dollar in reserves), and because smaller businesses tend to trade with each other because they take their supplies from and produce supplies for other small, local businesses. This can lead to a virtuous circle where the amount of times the same euro is spent, and thus the amount of people who benefit, is much higher when spent on small businesses than large ones. This means that when we want to keep the economy ticking over, supporting smaller and local businesses is more effective (similarly, giving monetary pay-outs to individuals rather than business is a more effective economic stimulus). Another respect that supporting small business is better is because it is on average less exploitative, because the difference in power between the employer and employee is smaller and thus employees are able to better have their interests represented. While the amount of shady employment practices isn't zero in small businesses, it's much lower than in larger companies, where exploitation of labour is often done systematically and on a much larger scale. So, we should encourage people using small businesses, because the harms of doings so are smaller and the benefits to the economy larger.

There is an enormous and long-running debate about the conditions problem is especially bad for people already doing this kind of work, because the conditions they are working under has changed drastically, often without any change in their rewards. Working in a supermarket or as a warehouse worker or delivery driver suddenly includes risk of infection as one of its dangers but the workers continue with pretty much the same rewards and protections as before, which is to say very little of either. This means we simply cannot pretend that working under these risks is something that these workers have agreed to voluntarily. This counts even for people who take on these kinds of jobs during the lockdown (because other jobs are much less available), because the pay and conditions they get hired under is the same or very close to those that were in place before the lockdown started, rather than reflecting the much more dangerous conditions under COVID-19.

So, there is good reason to think that the way that front-line workers are being treated now is not good, and thus also reason to think we shouldn't support it. Does this mean that making use of online deliveries for non-essential things immoral? This is unfortunately not easy to say. The problem is that our using this kind of service isn't just something you and I do individually, but happens society-wide. So, even if you or I radically change what we do, that won't by itself change what society does. We have two avenues available here. The one that is entirely under our own power is to opt out of the system: not make use of non-essential online delivery, not support the companies making and not sharing a windfall, and so on. One problem with this approach is that the costs of this approach falls mainly on the people with the least power to make a difference: individual consumers. There seems to be a problem with an approach that asks the most from people who can do the least. Nonetheless, this is not a crazy way to do things, especially because many people hope that their opting out can encourage other people to do the same, and that from the tiny acorn of individual action large-scale action may result. The most familiar example of this is people opting out of factory farming by becoming ethical vegans or vegetarians: individuals not buying meat or cheese doesn't change the world, but the individual does not make themselves complicit, and if no individual takes the first step then wider society won't take the steps either.

The other avenue for responding to this problem is to aim at collective action, not just individual action. Examples of collective action which has been successful in the past is the forming of labour unions to represent the interests of workers as a bloc, boycotts and other campaigns that put public pressure on companies to change conditions, regulations mandating things like workplace safety and hazard pay, and the levying of a windfall tax on companies so that society as a whole can benefit from these exceptional circumstances, rather than individual companies pocketing all of the benefit. But collective action is something that is not under individual's control, and that is a problem because while it is in my power not to buy from these companies, I need other people to work with me to engage in labour campaigns, boycott campaigns, or instantiate a windfall tax. That can be extremely discouraging, and these movements are often slow to get going. But one encouraging thing about them is that they do a better job of distributing the burdens of making a change, across all the members of such a movement rather than making particular individuals bear most of the brunt. We may also note that this is the kind of measure that the companies in question are most afraid of, with companies like Amazon spending an enormous amount of time and effort trying to stop its workers from unionising, or for campaigning politicians for preferential treatment. This suggests that the companies also think this is the most effective way of getting them to change what they are doing. So, this collective action approach is less within the power of individuals, but is more powerful overall.

The two approaches listed above aren't exclusive: you can both opt out of using these companies individually and campaign for collective action. But these are the options, taken singly or together, if we take the ethical issue Rebekah raises seriously.