Undue Process

13 December 2008

How Not to Terminate a Labour Contract

Rust Never Sleeps, by Prawnchop, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Not all processes happen by themselves – some are shaped, shifted and cajoled into being. They’re products of social interaction, and in so being are inherently tied to status inequality. Like contracts, to which they are so often linked, many social processes involve protocols in which people assume set roles, whether buttressed by necessity, convention or formal influences like the law. Exchange, for instance, is a social process in which unequal parties, a buyer and a seller, meet through necessity to solve a problem of relative scarcity. In this example the inequality doesn’t necessarily mean that one party has a good deal of leverage over the other – a buyer can be as desperate to sell, or not, as a buyer is to buy. But there are other forms of exchange, and labour exchange in particular, in which one of the parties is necessarily at a disadvantage.

In many ways that labour is exchanged, inequality of outcomes is of little consequence and indeed necessary for the continued functioning of an organisation. The firm for which I work could well gain more from the product of my labour than I do, but it also has to pay me a salary that a doctorate holder will accept. And I gain more for my efforts than I would in some other, but not all, situations. In that sense my employment is a trade off – not equal, but by no means exploitative. Both parties gain something and have to set something aside. The process is one of give and take, a constant negotiation in which my income has increased as the business for which I’m responsible has prospered.

But consider another situation, in which an employee signs a labour contract under which strict boundaries are set on pay, living conditions, movement and responsibilities. In this example the process of employment is not only more rigid, but it’s also far more significant each and every moment of the day. The employee relies on the employer’s understanding of the process, including the legal rules attached to it, to ensure that it is operating as it should. There is an element of mutual respect here, or at least the possibility, and a sense that ethics has a central role to play. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or whatever your religious or other persuasion might offer up.

085, by Ravages, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Then, of course, there are people who just don’t care, employers whose status relative to their employees is so great that they simply destroy the process and flout the conventions. Consider this: last week a domestic helper who had been employed long term by a woman here in Hong Kong – an Australian ex-pat of significantly more wealth than her unfortunate employee – was sacked for taking out a personal loan to pay for treatment of her husband, who has cancer. The employer, as it turns out, had just lost her job (her own husband had not) and feared that she would somehow be implicated in her employee’s rather small loan (the equivalent of three months’ wages) should it not be paid.

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