In this post, I’m picking up on a theme that has run through a few discussions lately. On the subject of dress codes the discussion was about where the line is drawn across which an employer has no right to step. That line can be difficult to define. Is it okay for an employer to insist upon full makeup, cutting one’s hair, or as Henry Ford did, use house inspectors to see if employees were smoking or drinking in the privacy of their homes? On another discussion, Bucko expresses exasperation about people mentioning employers exploiting employees. For most people, most of the time, he has a point. Someone earning more than you as a consequence of his entrepreneurial skill is not exploitation. Not even close.
However, as I have discovered to my cost this past few months, at the bottom of the food chain, things aren’t so rosy.
While the satanic mills are something of a cliché when discussing employee relations, it remains a fact of history. It is because of rampant abuse that the state felt it necessary to intervene, and in 1801 we saw our first piece of health and safety legislation hit the stature books; the Health Safety and Welfare of Apprentices Act. The state was the only entity that was powerful enough to stand up to the employer of the time. In some cases that is still true. The rise of unionism helped to an extent. And if you work for a pubic body or one that has been privatised but still retains its relationship with a union, then it is likely that the terms and conditions of employment will be favourable.
I was horrified when I joined the rail industry to see wastefulness writ large and Spanish practices as a consequence of the unionism of the industry. Were these people insulated from the outside world, I wondered (rhetorical question). The unions had become all powerful – even in the post Scargill days of the early nineties and I was appalled at the inability of local managers to, well, manage without the say so of the local union rep. Clearly things were out of kilter. Only today, we see evidence that the unions are not averse to the same behaviour as corporations given the opportunity themselves. However, on the flip side, someone working for what was then British Rail had back-up if they needed it and I would still advocate joining one for that reason. Even now, a decade and a half after privatisation the rail industry employee enjoys terms and conditions much more favourable than I have been encountering recently – providing one is an employee and not a subcontractor. A subbie can be expected to work excessive hours and ignore safety systems if the main contractor demands it, or not be asked back. This is still an ongoing problem the industry faces and one I have witnessed first hand.
Not so long ago, during one of these discussions Angry Exile stated that employers should be allowed to do pretty much as they please – after all, they are paying the wages. This is something that you would expect a libertarian to say. However, unbridled freedom ultimately leads to the enslavement of the weak by the powerful. Those satanic mills, clichéd though they are, are a consequence of that unchecked behaviour.
Last October, I witnessed an employer insist that people work twelve hours a day for six days a week or face disciplinary action. Should the employer be allowed to do this? Not least that they were blatantly exploiting the EU directive on working hours. It is law, whether we like it or not. However even if it wasn’t law, we have the matter of fatigue to consider – and drivers who are fatigued are a menace to themselves and others. The employer still has a common law duty of care not to cause harm to employees and anyone who may be affected by his enterprise. Therefore, I do not accept that this was okay. The employer should not have the unbridled right to impose whatever he likes upon employees. Their dime does not entitle them to cause harm.
The contract of employment should be equitable to both parties. It should result in a mutually acceptable symbiotic relationship between the two. However, who writes it? Who is deciding who benefits and how?
When has an employee ever been involved in the drafting of the contract to which he is expected to put his name? Maybe if he is a contractor, but otherwise it’s a one way street. If the employer is reasonable – as most are – then likely as not, there will be no complaints. In all my years, I have rarely had to complain about working conditions. It has only been recently when working through agencies or most recently stacking shelves that I have faced the dark side of employment regimes.
I am presently discussing my working hours with my current employer. One night on, one night off throughout the week is playing havoc with my circadian rhythms. When I was asked if there was anything that isn’t working for me during a one-to-one, I pointed this out. The response was pretty much the libertarian one – “well, you took the job”. So I did. I was claiming jobseekers allowance at the time and facing certain insolvency, having been out of work for a year, so, yes, I took it (although, to be sure, this is strictly a temporary arrangement form my point of view). I had no choice. Had there been any choice in the matter whatsoever, I wouldn’t have touched it with the proverbial barge pole.
Still, at least they asked. They just didn’t like the response, although, to be fair to them, they are looking into changing the pattern so speaking up has a benefit sometimes. This shift pattern most likely came about as a consequence of a series of personnel changes leaving some odd gaps. Cock up rather than conspiracy, as it were. However, the effect on shift worker fatigue was foreseeable and they shouldn’t have been too surprised when I raised it. But, please, please do not regale me with “you had a choice.” Hobson’s choice is no choice. The current state of the economy is enabling such behaviour – precisely because the prospective employee cannot tell them where to stick their terms and conditions. The relationship therefore is unbalanced. We effectively have an unfair contract.
Still, I digress a little if merely to illustrate that employers when looking after their own interest are prepared to cause others harm – if they can get away with it. It is, in part, why we now have a plethora of law. If employers didn’t build slag heaps that crush nearby schools, for example we wouldn’t have to have the dead hand of the state wielding its coercive behaviour on employers. And, of course, politicians being politicians will always want another problem to solve, so once they have brought in one law they are looking to see where the next one will fit.
Perhaps what disappoints me most is that libertarians who see this behaviour from the state and roundly condemn it, will happily give businesses a free pass when they behave in exactly the same manner. The use of might to bully the little guy is wrong whoever is doing it and a basic understanding of human nature tells us that there will always be those who will try it on. So, no, employers shouldn’t be able to do exactly as they please. Their right to engage in their business does not include the right to cause harm to their employees – or others. J S Mill gave us that principle.
So, we are back to where that line is drawn…