Exploitation of women workers

 

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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 22 Apr 01


It could be a factory scene out of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable transported to our little islands in the West Indies.

 

The women with the unseeing eyes, the first and last people you see as you go in and out the door, are so reluctant to acknowledge you.

 

They point with mouths and fingers when asked a question, their faces set in disproportional pulsating rage if they are forced to use their voices to answer a query, to do what they are being paid to do.

 

Their counterparts - men in uniforms - who, technically, are meant to inspire feelings of security, but whose haunted eyes make them as suspect as the hidden dangers in the dark car park or empty buildings. Their anger burns through their uniforms, emerges in casual, insolent looks that offer no protection.

 

Then there are the voices on the other end of the telephone, of secretaries, assistants, either aggressive or simpering, barely audible, leaving you frustrated, your questions dismissed, unanswered.

 

You, now known as the “client” by the advertising experts (who hope by their lingo to convince us all from their insulated offices that we are now part of one happy up-market global technologically networked economy), walk in and out of shoe shops, gyms, banks and travel agencies, post offices and malls with a vague disquiet, wondering why the frontmen and women in the private sector are routinely disinterested.

 

Don’t they know that service industries drive the world economy today, that competition allows us to walk out of one office and into another if clients (customers, you and me) don’t like the way they are treated? What monster created these creatures of the undead?

Answer: Short-sighted men in suits in the private sector.

 

There is a story behind each of these sullen masks.

Once the mask is cracked open, out pour sad, cruel stories of exploited, underpaid, overworked, humiliated workers robbed of dignity, job satisfaction and motivation by employers whose overwhelming and only instinct is that of greed.

 

Take Alicia (not her real name), employed in a gym in Port-of-Spain as an instructor. Like most gym instructors, Alicia was paid so little (with no contract) that she could only scrape through the month if she did personal training.

 

To do this, she would work three hours before and after her regular hours of 8-5, arriving at the gym at 5 am, not leaving even on the days she was not doing personal training, before 8 pm.

 

One day, Alicia made the mistake of being so bold as to ask for her NIS number. The next day, the privilege of personal training, even in her free time, was taken away. The following day she was fired but she was not surprised, because the receptionist who she had asked about her PAYE payments had also been fired.

 

Can any of us expect Alicia to be lively, curious, motivated, interested in people, or in getting ahead? She was, when she started. Now she will turn her eyes inwards with bitter disillusionment, knowing the scale of justice tips over only to the wealthy.

 

It would appear that certain companies in this country are swindling money off government and workers (many of whom are entitled, because of their low wages to tax returns) to finance their businesses, or simply cream off their profits.

 

The irony is, this short-term, avaricious gain to companies is myopic firstly because in most cases, the lowest paid workers are frontline people (stores, gyms, security officers), and if they’re unhappy and rude (can’t blame them), people take their business elsewhere.

 

Secondly, it doesn’t make economic sense, because if you’re paying $25,000 in rent, the cost of giving employees their due in PAYE and NIS is negligible.

 

Thirdly, apart from being immoral, it is silly, because it prevents your employee from seeking your interests (people go to places like gyms not for equipment but for the human contact) because you don’t seek his or hers, and because you refuse to invest in your human resources, your yield is low, turnover high.

 

Finally, there is no built-in reward system for initiative, for employees to rise to their level of employment, because it is quickly stifled by threatened managers who, above all, protect their turf, and turn a blind eye to the competitive market in which they operate.

 

As a result, employer, employee and client are collectively in a lose-lose-lose situation.

 

The greedy economy of stealing chips from the poor to pad the pockets of the rich extends to many groups including housekeepers, watchmen, hairdressers, gardeners who are paid as low as $700 to $800 a month, deprived of rights including paid sick leave and holidays, simply because nobody’s looking.

 

But the people who are being exploited are all eyes, as is a growing underworld that believes rightly that “society” has no moral authority to pompously pronounce over “criminal activity.”

 

After all, they are being systematically robbed every month by many in the private sector. Exploitation by employers of the most vulnerable among us - the very young or old, the least educated, the poorest - is a form of cruel indentureship because employees are ruled (as in the days of slavery) with intimidation.

 

They can’t turn to the Ministry of Labour or unions because bullying bosses wring their necks by finding another reason to dismiss them. Dismissal for many is equal to being put out on the streets.

 

There are exceptions, of course - decent employers who understand the role they play in a developing country, and the need to be decent, if not give back.

But too few.

 

A British survey showed that the Dutch economy is thriving in the context of strict labour laws and high taxes because employees were motivated and still possessed the most precious of all human commodities - dignity.

 

It really doesn’t take much - the minimum wage, PAYE and NIS taxes are a negligible sliver off meaty profits raked in by private enterprises.

 

It doesn’t take much - the price of a night out by employers can easily pay for resurrecting the undead among us.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur