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Comment: Employment Rights and Human Rights

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April 12, 2004-Last year an employee of IBEC-the Irish employer's representative organization- questioned the need for so many statutory protections of workers' rights when the modern company has an enlightened approach in the human resources area. IBEC's membership largely comprises companies where the CEO is an employee like everyone else and in the case of foreign-owned companies , the Human Resources function head at head office may well have the last say on issues in dispute. In family run and entrepreneurial businesses when the top manager is a bully, there is need for the restraint which statutory protections induce. This is particularly important when the jobs market is not good and a manager has the sense that an employee has little choice of alternative employment.

Multinational companies are not of course immune from bullying and harassment. In recent years there have been cases in the City of London where banks were found guilty of harassment against female employees and in July 2003 a US. brokerage Cantor Fitzgerald was found guilty of bullying by the UK High Court. Steven Horkulak had claimed that Lee Amaitis, the president of the brokerage firm, had hysterically screamed obscenities at him on a regular basis over six months until he was dismissed in June 2000. The 39-year-old had told the Court that his boss threatened to "fucking break him in two" and "rip [his] head off". Horkulak was awarded 912,000 damages, plus interest and costs which will take it close to 1m. Later, Justice Brenda Hale, refused to give the U.S. firm permission to appeal. Justice Hale said the judgement made clear that an employer could not make it impossible for somebody to do his job and then say that that employee had not been dismissed. "He (the employer) is not able to sack somebody by the back door and avoid the consequences," she said. Amaitis had presented a different image when Prince Charles had visited the London offices in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center when Cantor Fitzgerald had lost up to 700 employees. Amaitas told the prince his staff had been "heroes - everyone of them" as he showed him round the offices.

Employment rights are human rights and this week the UK Institute of Public Policy Research will publish a report which recommends that the U.K government should strengthen human rights rules and hold offenders to account. The Institute says globalisation and the influence of international companies make a voluntary approach outdated. Although, I've had experience myself of a Swedish multinational which allowed subsidiaries to engage in bribery as long as the head office wasn't informed about it, workers in the developing world where employment rights are often non-existent, are lucky if they can get employment in such companies. When the Irish provided the bulk of the UK construction industry workforce in the 1950's, it's said that Irish foremen were unpopular with their fellow countrymen because they were often brutish and ignorant. It was a case of the beggar on horseback riding to the devil. It's a similar situation in poor countries today. 

The most high pressure job I've had was as a waiter in the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado where later on his 40th birthday, George W. Bush decided to go on the wagon. It surprised me that the kitchen dispatcher who was a Hungarian immigrant was so liberal with abuse of the staff who were primarily American. The head chef was a moody Frenchman and my own baptism of fire occurred when the Spanish table captain struck his desk with his fist while shouting, 'You sonofabitch! The wealthy guests who were victims of my faux-pas, apologised for Manuel's outburst. He was the type who would frighten a horse from a feed of oats with his fussiness about the guests but he had a good heart.  

Statutory protections are important as human nature hasn't fundamentally changed in recent decades. There are many business managers who do not need these protections as they recognise that a well run company is one where morale is high and teamwork not intimidation is necessary for long term success. However, there are people running companies today whose mood can impact on every aspect of business. In he my first job, the Managing Director was an ignorant bully and I heard later that the Financial Controller was so stressed that he regularly got physically sick before even arriving in the office. Employees need to be protected against individuals who are control freaks with no regard for the impact of their mode of operation on others.

The landmark Irish employment legislation of recent decades has been the Unfair Dismissals Act of 1977. In common with all rights legislation, the early years of the Act provided tabloid journalists with much fodder as there were the inevitable share of frivolous cases along with the worthy ones. Today it's the Equal Status Act which provides tabloid journalism with material. In recent months, the Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers has referred on a number of occasions to the Equality Authority as the 'Equality Police.' It is easy for a white middle class male to make an issue of what is termed political correctness. It took time for the administration of the Unfair Dismissals Act to settle down and the same also applies to the Equal Status Act. There will always be a number of bad judgments in the adjudication process provided by rights legislation but that is not an argument for no such legislation.    

- Michael Hennigan

Our Comment feature has been incorporated in the:

The Finfacts Ireland News & Comment  Service from October 2004

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September 2004:

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Get an Education and Make Crime Pay

August 2004:

America: Celebrities, Politics and Money
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July 2004:

Incendiary Money Spinners: Fahrenheit 9/11 and President George W. Bush Assassination Novel Plot
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UN Human Development Report 2004 and Ireland
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June 2004:

Senator Joseph McCarthy: The Implosion of an Irish American Demagogue
Irish Media-Caged or Paper Tigers?
The Celtic Tiger and Public Squalor in Modern Ireland
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The Many Facets of Racism Part 2

May 2004:

Balancing Frugality and Miserliness
The Gekko Doctrine-Fair Pay in an Age of Greed 
The Genesis of American Foreign Policy
In an Age of Cynicism: Trust me, I'm a Politician!

April 2004:

Dealing with Al Qaeda Terrorism
Employment Rights and Human Rights
The Opiate of the Masses
Prison of Culture-Japanese Hostages Get Icy Welcome Home 

March 2004:

The Irish Abuse of Power Tribunals
1989-A Year of Irish Corruption and Freedom
Iraq War and Embittered Tit-for-Tat
Irish Corruption and Morality: 'But sir, don't they all steal?'


US Corporate Scandals and the Laws of Unintended Consequences
Self Interest - Common Interest Imbalances



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