Sunday, September 25, 2011

The indulgent employer.

The Madam and the Maid
(Restaurant in Hiyoshi, Japan)

One of the main discourses that keep popping up when reading the things that employers say about their domestic workers is a double-pronged argument: defensive and offensive at the same time. It's easy to imagine how they feel when you read what they say or write, but it was hard to come up with a word to summarise that feeling.

As I discussed this R (while re-enacting the voices of employers), he remarked that it was close to the Catholic concept of indulgence. Historically, the early Catholic Church allowed sinners to pay a certain amount of money to shorten their penances. In other words, for some money, people could rapidly reduce the time spent feeling guilty. So for the sake of simplicity, I'll refer to this as the 'indulgence discourse'.

Employers who indulge (pun intended) in this discourse explicitly show off about how 'good' they are to their domestic workers, especially in material terms (although they do illustrate other, non-material ways, such as 'not overburdening' them). Examples include stating how much bonus they give, any presents (which often include second-hand things) and how much they give (or allow) their workers to eat or the quality/price of the food.

My first, albeit judgmental response to this is that I think the degree to which one talks about their work, especially good works, is inversely proportional to the amount of sincerity behind it. In the first place, some of these material 'gifts' are actually part of the employer's responsibility, such as providing sufficient food and rest. Framing a right as a gift does not make one seem more compassionate.

Do they expect their workers to be so utterly thankful for just having enough food to eat when it is their right to have enough to eat? Just like it's anyone's right to live safely, be clothed and be educated? Who grants rights - people, or God?

At the same time, the indulgence discourse includes a defensive posture. To further show how their workers are in fact, not being badly treated, they point to other cases of workers who are worse off. They use examples of workers being abused, starved, and overworked against their comparatively better-off workers to carefully, but erroneously, construct themselves as compassionately superior employers. In fact, these workers barely enjoy the minimum of what they are entitled to.

R helped me in theorising that employers exercise their penance both materially and discursively: by granting material and non-material gifts to their workers, and then by announcing it to others, employers are trying to assuage their guilt for not treating their workers like full human beings.

I really think this is the case because employers who actually do treat their workers 'with dignity' don't go into detail about how much they pay or what kind of gifts they give. Those that I approached also actually prefer to not talk about it at all.

This provides an excellent example of Hegel's master-slave dialectic: the master is only aware of himself because he is obsessed with passive consumption, but the slave is aware of both himself and his master because he works tangibly in the production of what his master consumes.

In other words, it's better to ask the slave about the power relationship because he can see power working both ways (top-down and bottom-up) while the master can only see power working one way. 


Nasha Islem said...

now that you've framed the matter as such.. damn, some dw employers really have some god complex issues huh..

Sya said...

That's just my theory - I don't think they consciously think about penance.

Nor are they Catholic for that matter, haha.


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