Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Third World Sweatshops

When you say the word 'sweatshop' what usually comes to mind is some obscure factory in either China or the Indian subcontinent where poorly paid overworked workers toil away under inhumane working conditions. These oppressed lot would usually be poor rural folk who don't have many other options available to them in making a living, hence their willingness to put up with such poor working conditions and a meager amount of money.

Such sweatshops however do not only exist in countries where the percentage of those who live below the poverty line is high. After much observation, I have come to the conclusion that there is much of the 'sweatshop syndrome' that exist in Malaysia's white-collar sector. ( I am sure harsh conditions do exist in the blue-collar sector too, but for the purpose of this posting, I shall stick with the white-collar sector only).

Is the term 'sweatshop' to harsh? I don't think so. Beneath the veneer of air-conditioned offices, plush carpets and comfortable swivel chairs, there is much of the 'sweatshop syndrome' in our working environment. A large majority of Malaysian employers seem to look upon their employees as 'bonded labour'. It's as if once you have signed upon the dotted line accepting their offer of employment, you have sort of effectively sold your soul to the corporation ( whether it's a huge organisation or a small set-up).

You know you work in a sweatshop if:
1. At the job interview itself you are told that you must be able to work long-hours and on weekends.

2. They quiz you on your marital state and want to know if you are planning to tie the knot soon. A newly wed would also be asked whether they plan to start a family (Female job candidates get this a lot).

3. If you are from out-of-state, they will want to know how frequently you plan make trips back to your hometown.

4. You are expected to do things that do not come under your job scope because management wants to save costs.

5. You are expected to perform super efficiently despite the fact that your computer is slow as a snail. If you bring this up, once again the cost factor will be thrown in your face.

6. You are expected to be comfortable working long hours in highly deplorable conditions such as; faulty air-conditioners that literally freeze you to death, poorly maintained toilets, colleagues who smoke in the office etc.

'Scrooge Bosses'
7. Employers who think its okay to pay you late. If the company is in its first year of operations, there is some allowance that can be made for this. But if the employer/organisation continues to be a bad pay master after the crucial first year and yet expect 100% from you, well you definitely work in a sweatshop. In fact there are some employers (usually smaller organisations), who pay late because some 'big guy' boss was not available/too busy to sign the cheque. Now this I think is highly unpardonable! These sorts are selfish in the extreme, all most all of us work because we need to put a roof over our heads, food on the table and pay bills which have a DUE date. So by paying us late, such selfish employers are effectively making us look bad in the eyes of our creditors. But of course details like this don't matter to them, for in their eyes, we are but worker ants.

In the pursuit to cut costs and save a few precious dimes, some organisations have also been known to shift operations to pay cheaper rent. Unfortunately paying cheaper rent also means you get a real crapped up work location like one where undesirable characters lurk. Which means you gotta watch your purse when you step out of the office, or constantly worry that your car might be broken into and yeah a lot worse could happen too.....especially if you work late and have to leave the office alone. But management gets to cut their precious costs so you gotta put up with it!

8. Any human that performs a function that takes up a substantial portion of mental and physical effort will need a period of rest. In an office we call this "taking a break" usually an hour during lunch. But a fair number of Malaysian employers seem to see this as something that employees can do without. In the last office that I worked at, my then boss very proudly told me during my first day of work that most of his staff seldom took lunch breaks and preferred to eat at their desks. Later of course, I found out the real reason for this. He had a penchant for calling meetings during lunch hour because apparently that was the only time he would be free.

In another case, my brother once had a boss who cut down lunch hour to 30 minutes. He felt it was perfectly okay for his staff to run down to the cafeteria, gobble down their food and rush back to work. His reason was that he wanted to increase productivity. He even had lunch catered every Friday so that staff would eat in the office instead of going out for lunch. Bosses like these don't seem to get the concept. Lunch break is not just about eating, it's about taking a break from your immediate working environment. To chill out for a bit and recharge your batteries, so you are able to return to work somewhat energised. If you are just stuck at your desk the whole freaking day, even if they order you a sumptuous meal, it is not called taking a break. Anybody who works needs a break, it's as simple as that.

'Allergic to the L word'
9. The reason why we are given a leave allocation is so not all of our life will revolve around work. And also besides work, there are a heck of a lot of other things that go on in our lives, that we sometimes have to take time off to attend to. Oh but some employers can be plain anal when it comes to the 'L' word. Some organisations will conveniently put a freeze on leave-taking as and when they like, leaving a lot of staff wondering when exactly they can go on leave, while some others will say things like "oh but who will do this and that when you go on leave......". If they finally agree to let you take a few precious days off, one of the conditions would be that you should constantly be reachable via mobile and email. So you see, once in a sweatshop, you cannot leave it for long.

'Office = Home'
10. If yours is a day job, chances are it would be from 9am to 5pm/10am to 6pm. However almost all of us know that is just the 'official timing'. Almost nobody leaves the office at 5pm or 6m, excluding those who work in the civil service or the clerical staff. Even if we are not bogged down with work, most of us will hang around and leave at 7pm at the very least. To constantly leave the office on the dot is frowned upon even if you are quite done for the day. In Malaysian working life, to leave the office early is a rarity. It's an unwritten rule that everyone should hang around for an extra hour or two. Then of course there are the ones for who working late everyday is the norm. These poor souls get to see the sunrise but never get to see it set.

In fact some Malaysian bosses get a sense of perverse pleasure out of scheduling meetings and discussions at 5pm and 6pm which can go on for hours. Doubly annoying it is when you have made plans to watch a movie or have dinner with friends. There have been many a time when I had to cancel such outings at the eleventh hour due to the fact that I had a boss who loved the sound of his own voice.

'They think you live only to serve them'
11. Besides it being an economic necessity that we do so, there are many other reasons why people take up the jobs that they do. Some do it because they would like to acquire a specific skill set that would come in handy say when they set up their own business for instance, while others might work at a particular job because the hours are conducive in enabling them to attend night classes for a masters programme. At the end of the day, most of us seek to better ourselves as individuals and improve our skills and marketability.

Unfortunately there are many employers who shy away from hiring people who are pursuing some form of study and worse still frown upon staff who do so. What they want is employees who will give 100% to their jobs while sacrificing any desire to better themselves. Now if these employers were good enough to recognise the merit of hardworking staff and advance them within the organisation, it would not be so bad, uh but in most cases they are happy for you to remain where you are, doing what you do best, which is serving them unconditionally.

In fact a friend of mine had the misfortune of twice being offered a better position at another department but was unable to take up the offer because his immediate superior went to top management and made a big fuss about other departments trying to pinch his staff, saying he could not let anybody leave the department because he was so shorthanded. Now imagine the frustration of a truly talented worker whose is held back from taking such an opportunity on the whim of a very selfish boss.

All in all, Malaysian bosses need to wizen up to the fact that people are out there in the job market to earn a living and acquire some valuable skills that will serve them well in the future, not sell their souls. The age of slavery is long gone and so is the culture of utter subservience to one organisation. If you do not treat your employees well, they will just up and leave.

Sometimes just browsing the recruitment section of the newspapers can make one shudder, almost every job advertisement will say that you must be willing to work long hours and under pressure. Fair enough that there are some jobs that will entail long working hours such as advertising for instance. But these days it seems to be the norm that almost everybody must be prepared to bring sleeping-bags to the office. If we go on at this rate, we are gonna be competing with Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan where people work until 12 midnight and sometimes when they can't take it anymore, they throw themselves off the train on the way home from work!

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