Disposable workers

This is hard to fathom, but unfortunately the headline pictured above — “A maid begged for help before falling from a window in Kuwait. Her boss made a video instead.” — tells the heart of the story. Avi Selk reports for the Washington Post:

The floor looks clean in this high-rise apartment, seven stories above Kuwait City traffic. Not a smudge in sight on the picture window. On the other side of the glass, the maid is hanging on by one knuckle, screaming.

“Oh crazy, come here,” a woman says casually in Arabic, holding a camera up to the maid.

“Hold on to me! Hold on to me!” the maid yells.

Instead, the woman steps back. The maid’s grip finally slips, and she lands in a cloud of dust, many stories below.

The maid — an Ethiopian who had been working in the country for several years, according to the Kuwait Times — survived the fall. The videographer, her employer, was arrested last week on a charge of failing to help the worker.

Selk adds that more instances of domestic workers falling off of buildings have been reported. Human rights advocates are sounding alarms about this horrible incident and others against the background of a system of servitude known as kafala, whereby foreign workers surrender basic labor rights in return for work visas.

The spectrum of workplace mistreatment runs from lighter instances of intentional incivility all the way to slavery and torture. This event in Kuwait, and references to the policy of kafala, remind us that forms of abuse tending toward, and falling squarely within, the latter still exist in this world.

Enter therapeutic jurisprudence

These concerns also raise the fundamental importance of bringing dignity at work into therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a school of legal theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal processes, and legal institutions.

As close readers of this blog know, I have been active in the TJ movement for many years, to the point of regarding it as my primary lens for examining law and policy. In fact, I’m part of a wonderful group of law teachers, lawyers, and judges who are forming a new international, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence on a global scale. We will be launching this new entity at the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, to be held this year in Prague, Czech Republic.

To date, much TJ activity has been concentrated in legal areas such as mental health and disability law, criminal law, dispute resolution and the administration of justice, and family law. Laws and policies relating to work, workers, and workplaces, however, have not received as much attention. Along with other folks dedicated to advancing dignity at work, I look forward to playing an energetic role in changing that state of affairs.

You see, it’s important to remember that individual incidents of worker abuse, including this one in Kuwait, are enabled or validated by policies such as kafala, thus melding the mistreatment with the tacit approval of law. Changing laws does not necessarily change individual behavior, but it creates enforceable norms that can inform people’s decisions about how to treat others.

The Guardian’s “bullying at work week”: Soliciting your story

Between April 3 and April 6 (UK time), The Guardian, a prominent British newspaper, will be accepting readers’ stories about being bullied at work, for possible inclusion in a special Careers section feature and its social media channels. An encrypted online form requests categories of information from contributors and allows them to limit how their stories are used, including decisions on anonymity and confidentiality.

The Guardian‘s Charlotte Seager explains the rationale for this invitation:

From bosses who try to sabotage their employees’ efforts, to colleagues who intimidate their co-workers or provoke them to tears: bullying at work is surprisingly common.

Nearly a third of workers in the UK experience ongoing intimidation. And with the rise in zero-hour contracts, insecure employment and cuts to legal aid, the problem can only get worse.

Studies show that bullies tend to be bosses or those in authority, making it hard for workers to speak up. “It is easy to denounce bullying,” says employment writer Stefan Stern. “The harder task is to understand why it is happening and to suggest ways of dealing with it.”

Of course, decisions on whether and how to go public with a personal bullying or mobbing story should be made carefully and even strategically, with an eye toward desired outcomes and possible career impacts. This includes, where applicable, potential legal implications, especially for those with pending claims. (Legal protections against workplace bullying in the U.K., while not ideal, are generally stronger than those in the U.S., so American readers should take this into account when considering this opportunity to contribute their stories.)

That said, this is an unusually open invitation by a prominent and respected periodical with global reach. I can’t wait to see what the published feature looks like.

The Guardian‘s “bullying at work week”

The online story solicitation is part of The Guardian‘s “bullying at work week,” a series of features running now in the newspaper. Today’s feature is “The psychology of a workplace bully,” and tomorrow’s is a live chat on dealing with bullying at work.

As an American reader and Guardian subscriber, I am both impressed and envious. Impressed because a major newspaper with an international readership takes workplace bullying seriously, especially from a target’s perspective. Envious because, at least for now, I can’t imagine a U.S. counterpart doing the same thing. This series demonstrates the degree to which public awareness and understanding of workplace bullying are becoming more widely mainstreamed elsewhere, and I hope that we in the States can reach that point sooner than later.

A talk on advancing dignity in our workplaces

For those of you who would like to contemplate the big picture of why we need to inject the value of human dignity into our workplaces, you’re invited to watch this 40-minute talk that I gave at the 2014 annual workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City. It was part of a public program on “Work That Dignifies the Lives of All People,” [Note: You may have to “rewind” the YouTube video to the beginning, as some for some weird reason, the talk sometimes starts at around the 10 minute mark!]

The talk gave me a chance to discuss many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I then tied them together under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

Next I asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.

This morning I was poking around the HumanDHS website and to my surprise found the video! I hadn’t posted it before, but I’m pleased to share it with you now. Introducing me is HumanDHS director Linda Hartling. As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished participating in this year’s HumanDHS workshop, and it once again was a tremendously rewarding experience.

The French (Dis)connection: No work e-mails outside traditional working hours

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Dominique Mosbergen reports for the Huffington Post on a new French labor law that bans after hours work e-mails:

Checking your work email on a weekend or a holiday? In France, where employees have been granted “the right to disconnect,” that’s now against the law.

Buried inside a recently enacted — and hotly contested — French labor reform bill is an amendment banning companies of 50 or more employees from sending emails after typical work hours. “The right to disconnect” amendment, as it’s so called, is aimed at minimizing the negative impacts of being excessively plugged in.

Lest any work-obsessed, provincial American get in a huff and start hurling insults at the collective French work ethic, Lauren Collins offers some clarifying cultural points in the New Yorker:

The notion of the indolent French worker, for one thing, is a fiction: the country’s hourly productivity, for example, rivals that of the United States, and French workers put in more hours a year than their supposedly more industrious German counterparts. The difference, then, is not in our attitudes toward our jobs but in our attitudes toward the rest of our lives. In France, a personal life is not a passive entity, the leftover bits of one’s existence that haven’t been gobbled up by the office, but a separate entity, the sovereignty of which is worth defending, even if that means that someone’s spreadsheet doesn’t get finished on time.

Okay, I’m not suggesting any such law for the U.S. The objections — legal, practical, everything — would come in from all directions, not just from large employers with round-the-clock operations. (Believe me, as an academician I send e-mails to our support staff at all hours of the day and night, though in no way do I expect responses when they’re not working.)

But I raise this to tweak our perspectives about work, work-life balance, and the importance of our time spent away from work. I think it’s especially germane to wage workers and lower-paid salaried workers who are expected to be at the beck and call of their higher-paid co-workers. It would be healthier for everyone if work’s e-influence wasn’t so 24/7. (Yup, I am writing this as a memo-to-self.)

Even if this French law wouldn’t port over well to America, embracing more of its underlying rationale would serve us well. On that note, for sure, Vive la France.

Recycling: Five years of March

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

March 2014: Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance — “What do I mean by ‘getting to tolerance’? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.”

March 2013: Does the Healthy Workplace Bill “demonize” workplace aggressors? — “I fully understand the emotions that cause some targets of workplace bullying to desire retribution. And while I do believe that compensation is a just goal for the Healthy Workplace Bill, the objectives of revenge and punishment seem less appropriate to fuel legislation designed, ultimately, to affirm human dignity. That said, holding someone accountable for engaging in proven, targeted, health-harming interpersonal abuse is not ‘demonization.’ We must be careful not to overuse the term, lest we become resistant toward all notions of personal responsibility for severe, intentional mistreatment of another.”

March 2012: Global report: Nearly 3 in 10 workers say workplace is psychologically unsafe — “If you need support for the proposition that employers need to take psychological health in the workplace more seriously, a Reuters global survey covering some 14,600 workers in 24 nations will give you some backup. The survey found that nearly three in ten workers deemed their workplaces psychologically unsafe and unhealthy….”

March 2011: Workplace bullying in the military — “At the 2010 International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment in Cardiff, Wales, I attended a compelling session on whistleblowing and bullying that featured retired Irish Army captain Tom Clonan. Clonan shared with us the disturbing story of how he was retaliated against after submitting a report to his superiors about extensive levels of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault directed at female soldiers by their male colleagues.”

March 2010: Do school bullying laws pave the way for the Healthy Workplace Bill? — “Time will tell if school bullying laws soften the way for workplace bullying laws, but I’m heartened by the fact that we’re starting to connect the dots on these forms of abusive behavior.  School bullying, workplace bullying, domestic abuse, child abuse…there are many ties that bind among these forms of mistreatment.”

U.K. report: Health care whistleblowers experience retaliatory bullying

In a recent article for The Guardian newspaper, Denis Campbell and Matthew Weaver highlight an independent investigative report finding that British National Health Service workers “who blow the whistle on substandard and dangerous practices are being ignored, bullied or even intimidated in a ‘climate of fear.'”

The investigation, led by Sir Robert Francis QC at the request of the Health Secretary, “reveal[s] how staff who have sounded the alarm about dangerous practices have found themselves shunned, suspended and sacked by hospital bosses instead of having their concerns taken seriously.”

Campbell and Weaver quoted Francis in a BBC interview, acknowledging the severe human costs of this retaliation:

“I’ve spoken to people who have not only lost their jobs, their livelihood, they’ve not been able to find other jobs to do. And I’m afraid in some cases have felt suicidal and become ill as a result.”

Recommendations

According to the official report website (which provides links to the executive summary and full report), Francis “sets out 20 Principles and Actions which aim to create the right conditions for NHS staff to speak up, share what works right across the NHS and get all organisations up to the standard of the best and provide redress when things go wrong in future.”

These include fostering a healthier organizational culture, better handling of individual complaints, and stronger legal protections.

Lessons reinforced

This report reinforces at least five lessons about whistleblowing, workplace bullying, and workplace retaliation:

First, even in a nation with more extensive worker protections, including some that address workplace bullying, bullying and intimidation are significant problems. The U.K. generally has been ahead of the U.S. in recognizing workplace bullying through its legal and labor dispute resolution systems, but the problems continue to exist.

Second, this is one more example of the heavy prices that some whistleblowers pay for raising concerns about improper, illegal, and/or unethical behavior. Workplace bullying is a common form of retaliation for whistleblowing.

Third, Francis’s observations about the effects of severe, bullying-type behaviors on individuals validates what we’ve known for years about the human costs of sustained, targeted work abuse. This includes the possibility of suicidal ideation.

Fourth, this underscores ongoing concerns about bullying behaviors in the health care sector, something we know a lot about here in the United States. Health care workers too often toil in stressed out, hostile, and bullying work environments.

Finally, the report’s recommendations remind us that reform and problem solving must be a multifaceted endeavor. This includes broader questions of organizational culture, specific measures and best practices, and effective legal protections.

No Ho Ho: Will Amazon’s warehouse workers benefit from the holiday shopping rush?

Now that the holiday shopping season is moving into full swing, a lot of folks will be clicking and shipping through their gift lists by way of Amazon. As someone who does not enjoy in-store shopping, I understand the appeal. However, I doubt that Amazon’s warehouse workers will be the main beneficiaries of the company’s holiday sales intake, and that should give us pause as we make our shopping choices.

Back in February I explained why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, citing concerns over how the company treats its warehouse workers:

I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.

Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.

However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses. For me, the final straw was a recent Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” detailing how the situation is much worse than I imagined….

I’ve cut down on my Amazon orders during 2014, and I’ve resisted the temptation to rejoin Prime. I’ve searched around in vain for evidence that Amazon is making any major effort to treat its warehouse workers better.

To be sure, Amazon’s delivery systems are what Wired called a “Massive Wish-Fulfilling Machine.” Marcus Wohlsen concludes his detailed look at Amazon’s warehouse and delivery operations this way:

Amazon’s warehouses are designed to be wish-fulfillment machines, calibrated to feed our consumer wants with aggressive speed and precision at a scale that has yet to find its limit. We keep supplying more wishes to Amazon, and Amazon keeps turning them into more stuff.

However, Amazon’s systems continue to exact a human toll on warehouse workers. For example, Dave Jamieson, writing for the Huffington Post in May, detailed a lawsuit filed by South Carolina employees:

A new batch of Amazon warehouse workers sued the online retailer in federal court last week, claiming the company’s workplace policies don’t leave them with reasonable time to eat their lunches.

In the lawsuit filed in South Carolina, seven warehouse workers say they were required to continue working and complete their tasks even after their unpaid half-hour breaks began. Once they were done, they would have to wait in line to go through a security screening, then take a six-minute walk across the massive warehouse to get some fresh air and eat.

All told, the holdups typically left them with “less than 18 minutes” to enjoy their lunches….

In addition, here’s how Jason Del Rey, writing for re/code in June, previewed a CNBC documentary on Amazon’s working conditions:

While CNBC found warehouse employees who were thankful for the pay and benefits that come with a job at an Amazon fulfillment center, several spoke out about against the unrelenting pace of work and unreasonable expectations that take a physical and mental toll on employees.

“I felt like Amazon was a prison,” one former female worker said in the documentary. She and others interviewed reported tough working conditions that include being timed on just about any action imaginable, from bathroom breaks to packing boxes to picking products off of shelves.

Amazon is among the companies that seek out older workers who roam the country in search of short-time and part-time employment, especially on a seasonal basis. Journalist Jessica Bruder was interviewed by public radio’s Here and Now program on the phenomenon of “workampers”:

A story in Harper’s Magazine opens a window into some of these people. They’re called “workampers” (a contraction of working and camping) and they travel across the country in their RVs, often performing seasonal work, selling fireworks, pumpkins, Christmas trees. They even work part-time in huge Amazon warehouses.

Jessica Bruder is author of the story, “The End Of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford To Stop Working,” in the August issue of Harper’s. She told Here & Now’s Robin Young that this movable work force is a great thing for companies like Amazon.

As you might guess, many workampers are doing what they do because more secure, higher paying jobs have eluded their grasp, especially during this ongoing economic crisis. They probably won’t be enjoying a lot of holiday cheer as they nurse their tired bodies after long, demanding shifts. 

 

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