Awake, O sleepers, the time to do some real work has come!
Admit it. The headline floored you. There you were on a Friday morning muttering “TGIF!” loudly and fervently if you’re the boss… or furtively under bated breath if you’re a wage slave – like me. Then along comes some ham-fisted headline like this, like a double-decker bus down High Level Road, and hits you in the solar plexus, like a sack of potatoes swung to the midriff or an extra portion of French fries under the belt. Oomph! Ouch! That hurt. What, our elected representatives – work? Not in a month of Sundays; not if their lives depended on it and not just your votes come their election time again!
Is that what I hear you think? Well, say it again. It’s official. Work is what you do when you’re in the office, under the eyes of a watchful clock or supervisor, and ensconced in productive labour. And now, also, what you do when you’re not in, clocked out, and simply sitting in public transport waiting to be taken where you can sign in or punch in. Or at least that’s what some enterprising folks in Europe would have the rest of us lazy postcolonial slackers believe.
According to a recent report on online site Quartz, “A court has ruled that time spent travelling to and from work is ‘work’.” In qz.com’s >Getting There> segment, it is revealed that the lateral-thinking tribunal has given a verdict in favour of employees over their slave-masters. Since “time spent travelling to and from work should count as actual work”, corporate establishments will now have to pay their workers for sitting in a train crammed tighter than the proverbial tin of Norwegian salmon or sweating it out in sardine-packed public buses en route to the slave camp. In the opinion of this EU court, many blue- as well as white-collar workers who have no fixed place of work – like technicians such as electricians, social service workers or specialised caregivers, and millions of myriad sales reps – must be recompensed for the rush-hour trauma they suffer in order to work. Or get to work.
The European Court of Justice can’t leave getting there well alone, apparently. As if to add insult to injury to the company laws over which they sat in judgment, the ECJ deemed it mandatory that no worker must be compelled to labour – even with love – for more than 48 hours per week. It evidently has the health and safety of Europe’s increasingly Asian, African, and Middle Eastern workforce at heart. Not only is a minimum rest period now guaranteed to Europe’s toiling masses, but the EU’s working time directive inures workers from the vagaries of captains of commerce and industry too, who close down regional offices due to cost control factors, and the vicissitudes of commuting to which this subjects employees.
Well now, this is all truly cultured of a civilisation that was swinging through the trees when a certain resplendent isle was working tirelessly to make itself the granary of the east – to say nothing of being the acme of religious philosophy and the epitome of a political system that worked better than its colonising opponents claimed when they invaded us to liberate the enslaved masses. But who’ll pay a plumber to sit like a plum pudding in a crowded Colombo-bound suburban bus while the bathtub leaks and the taps run dry? Worse yet, I can just see my insurance sales agent padding up my annual vehicular bill with detours to drop off his children at school – or visit a cinema to relieve his tired ever-working mind of the storm and stress, generally generated when his clients go through the fine print for small details such as hidden supercharges!
Maybe the worst fallout from our European friends’ socioeconomic rashness is yet to come. Already I can hear the busy minds of our diabolical politicos in an Eastern hemidemisemi-paradise ticking over in double time like some fiendish metronome hell-bent on serving its selfish interests. Where once upon a time some of our political servants in the super-luxury class demanded an extravagant importation of cars so that they could visit their electorates in comfort and safety, they might now demand time off from their representative duties to drive their vehicles to and from ‘work’. Worse than these perhaps unfounded fears is the wild imaginings of my mind as it contemplates the wicked and wily schemes of opportunistic politicians who might capitalise on the redefinition of work taking place at the heart of our planet’s politically sophisticated centre.
Here is what could well come to characterise soon the work done and work demanded in order that payment in cash and kind be merited by our members of parliament and bureaucratic mandarins:
Attacking one’s personal and one’s party’s political enemies in person, print, and at protests – in thought, word, or deed… work!?
Kissing babies. Which paid up for enterprise could easily degenerate into making babies for their political cohorts to kiss. Gives ‘workingman’ new meaning, eh.
Ceremonially declaring open buildings, events, business establishments, etc. The inordinate number of corporate houses and civil society institutions which require a politician to ‘grace’ their ceremonious functions – when all that these worthies have done of late is to disgrace themselves and scandalise the nation – leaves me speechless; but not the politicos concerned, who generally proceed to hold forth on republican virtues which are more honoured in the breach than the observance. All in a day’s work.
But of course as you the discerning reader would have realised by now, this is not the shape of things to come in a possible future political culture. It is the state of the nation’s political ethos as it is.
All of this is preamble. Now we come to the res.
Work v. work
All of the above facetious poking of fun at politicos must serve a purpose. If this column is to take its mandate to explore realpolitik in its present incarnation seriously. And if readers who are serious about democratic-republicanism are to take that avatar of pragmatic politics seriously in the national interest.
Which is to say that from time out of mind, arguably since Aristotle realised that man is a political animal (and probably headed off to the pub for a pint with his pals to celebrate that keen insight) politicians have ‘worked’. For themselves, their parties, their partisan agendas, their petty political interests; even the larger broader national interest in times of national crises like war, famine, economic meltdown. There comes a time in every polity’s maturity and midlife crisis, however, when citizens suspect that their elected representatives are not capable of doing a decent day’s work in the people’s interest – not if their lives depended on it. Such times militate in favour of movements and revolutions ostensibly attempting genuine reform of the state of the nation. Words such as “new” combined with “political culture” and “new” juxtaposed with “a … deal” begin to acquire fresh vitality. There is an exciting sense that the typical bloated corrupt regime’s ‘work’ is coming to an end at the hands – and voting feet – of their nemesis: the enfranchised citizen. A hush about a new ‘WORK’ – in all caps – is shouted out where once it was whispered.
That this brave new ‘WORK’ of reforming and reframing the republic has fallen into some state of disrepair is being suspected by even the most charitable of the Government’s interlocutors today. This is not to say that some solid ‘work’ (in the sense of basic good governance and restored confidence in the fundamentals of state administration) hasn’t been done to restore the diurnal doings of our late great democracy to some semblance of normalcy. We had forgotten – for a decade or more – what governance (leave alone good) looked like… So we’d be forgiven by being grateful and not a gobsmacked at its re-establishment. But there is also a disappointment that the greater ‘Work’ (with a cap) envisaged – a sea-change into something richer and not at all strange or stale as the old familiar bread and circuses – has not quite happened.
Sure, something happened and has happened; and some things are still happening to make the heart glad and the media as much as motley sycophants sing their governing mandarins’ praises. But is it WORK? Or work, and business and politics as usual? The jury is still out on that one.
Let me in the interim, as a working suggestion, propose three areas inter alia in which our duly elected leaders might consider more concerted labours of love.
AUTHORITY: Under previous egregiously egotistic regimes, chief executives were notoriously atheistic to criticism. Today, presidents and prime ministers are still being treated like sacred cows… by both civil society as an amorphous group comprising God knows whom… as well as media – an amoral gathering of gadflies who nevertheless play a part in the maintenance of republican virtue and integrity. Could it be a work in progress that senior governmental leaders still feel the stings and barbs of critical engagement such that they interpret these not as the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune which brought them to office, but as personal attacks? Would it be too much to ask them not to interpret it as insult or injury – but embrace the boldness of their interlocutors as not loving them less, but the republic more? Work at it, dear sirs!
ACCOUNTABILITY: Much was made of the deterioration of transparency under a bygone government whose misdemeanours smacked of impunity. But even today there are blue-eyed boys who seem to be facile at evading the long arm of the law vis-à-vis COPE… or party favourites ensconced in Parliament and Cabinet, as a bulwark against chauvinistic forces which could trump them at future elections. Would it be too much to ask that highbrows in Government work at more closely matching the principles they espoused on the campaign trail with the values they seem reluctant to embrace in the convenient political marriage?
ACCEPTABILITY: Although no one remembers the old hat of the 100-Day Plan any more, the framers of our would-be social contract did warn us that they were concerned about the decline and fall of ethics and morals. Today the fine print we failed to read is coming back to bite us in the backside. Time for independent-minded citizens and guardians of civil liberties to watch the dogs who puritanically preach against the indulgences of the masses which they disapprove of – while self-indulgently supplying ways and means for their cronies and cohorts to indulge themselves! You cannot preach temperance and sobriety to folks who are forced to watch while politicians on the public purse live it up in style like there was no tomorrow – and today, while presidents preach about societal vices like public consumption of alcohol, our women and children are being consumed in private by perverts, twisted school principals who administer corporate punishment for a sadistic whim, and powerfully protected paedophile rings which have positioned Sri Lanka as a child sex-tourism haven since Hikkaduwa opened its beaches to hippies. Work on that, would you, Mr. Workingman’s Wonderboy!
Hope none of these are too Herculean for the true Workers of our late great Republic being resurrected behind the veil away from prying public gazes. We the Masters of the Servants of the people would very much like to be able to say one day – perhaps at the very next polls – that desideratum of every decent democrat elected to office: “Well done, thou good and faithful worker!”