How Not to Terminate a Labour Contract
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.
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.
Leaving aside the illogic of that situation, what we need to ask is whether the employer proceeded with the dismissal in the appropriate manner. No, she did not. Ignoring the usual termination process, which involves legally sanctioned measures, set payout amounts and specific instructions for giving a return airfare to the place of origin (in this case a province in the Philippines), the woman simply took the house key off her employee, led her outside and locked the door. She then notified the Immigration Department that she had terminated the contract, without bothering to inform the employee of this verbally or in writing.
There is a large degree of callousness in these actions, in this undue process, that occurs often around where I live. It just so happens that the employee had served her employer for seven years, and was due a still outstanding long-service pay out of two-thirds of a year’s salary. Foreign domestic helpers are often sacked at this stage of their employment in Hong Kong, even though the payout is less than many employers would spend on weekday lunches each year. In this case the employee only received verbal confirmation of her termination, along with outstanding salary, severance payment and a ticket back to the Philippines, with a good deal of cajoling from the employee and some of her friends, with the threat of relatively easily invoked legal action.
So, from the ex-pat employer’s point of view, the process of labour exchange involves simple, if illogical, moral strictures and a complete departure from expected and required norms. Until of course, she is caught out, and even then she has refused to pay the long-service amount this time around. That’s the sort of concern for process, or rather lack of concern, that leads people to break the law in other, even more heinous ways. I’m sure the woman would be appalled to be considered in that light, which only indicates that her lack of ethical reflection is truly astounding.
So, the world turns and another domestic helper in Hong Kong has been shafted. In the overall scheme of things, employment in Hong Kong, even at low wages in local terms, is a boon for women from poverty stricken countries. The globalisation of the labour supply really does help to alleviate the burden of mis-governance in places like the Philippines, which would be a quivering mess without it. But in purely local terms it creates situations in which many employers hire employees for little more than loose change, and treat them with the same sort of disdain.
As the world economy slows and people start looking inward at their own economic positions, it really will pay to consider the mechanisms by which otherwise helpful practices are corrupted, more often than not. There is an element of injustice in the flow of labour between countries that is bound not in the situation itself, but to the actions of individuals who consider the situation not as a moment of change in the progress of the world economy but as a reflection of ‘natural’, and thus eternal, discrepancies between people of different cultures.
The world can be a bitter place.