Why do we defer from 9 to 5? The “master-servant relationship” is a feudal phantom that still haunts today’s workplaces, thanks to English common law. Peter Hall-Jones argues that it’s time to exorcise the old ghoul. The workplace democracy movement aims to do just that, but where do unions fit in? The way they respond to this agenda might well determine their relevance in the workplace of the future.
NCE upon a time there was a great chain of being. Up the top was God; down at the bottom were all the inanimate objects. Actually, somewhere beneath all this, below the rocks and lost socks and broken toasters in a kind of hidden underground lair, were the Devil and his minions. As for you and I, we were stationed at different points along the way depending upon our status. Kings were below angels; vassals below lords; apprentices below craftsmen; and wives below husbands. And there wasn’t much point in grizzling about it; all this was divinely ordained so we just had to lump it.
What we now call ‘English common law’ developed out of this medieval compost. Over the centuries, hallowed principles were codified into exacting social rules. Detailed treatises and regulations were drawn up to determine how people on different levels should relate to each other. Some of the central planks that emerged from this work of ages were the parent-child relationship, the husband-wife relationship, the guardian-ward relationship, and (our subject here) the master-servant relationship.
All of this ought to be the stuff of historical footnotes. However, English common law still underpins the legal systems in a large number of countries. The list includes the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, South Africa, Malaysia, Ireland, Australia, Brunei, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. To make matters worse, through the process we now call colonialism, several of these feudal relationships leached across cultures and have become a kind of ‘default setting’. In particular, the master-servant relationship sets the general tenor for industrial relations worldwide. Trade arrangements reinforce it further, and it has been quietly hard-wired into international labour law. Perhaps we no longer hold cherubim below seraphim, beetles below ladybirds, or yew trees below olive trees, but our life at work is still very much configured around this medieval template. (more…)