28 March 2016

'Work-to-rule' is a rule that can work

Sometime in October 2009, unions attached to the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPA) launched a work-to-rule campaign, demanding a salary hike.  I made passing reference to the union action around that time, in an article titled 'Work-to-rule is not a bad thing': "It didn't exactly cripple the national economy, but the union action greatly inconvenienced a lot of people. The 'grievances' are yet to be addressed and resolved. Organized labour in other sectors have also threatened similar action, it is reported."  The elaborations are still relevant, so I post this article, first published in the Daily News (October 31, 2009).  Today, more than 6 years later I still think that work-to-rule is a really good idea.

I am all for people organizing themselves so that they together seek redress for grievance and protect their rights. If there were no trade unions capitalists would no doubt have even more of a ball at the expense of the working class.

I am not sure however of the morality of strike action at this particular point in time, especially since this particular decision was prompted by prerogatives that lay outside the core concerns of the workers; it is clearly part of a larger design to undermine the Government with a view to forthcoming elections. That's politics, I suppose.

I've heard of work-to-rule of course. The media reported there was a general slow down and on top of it the workers refusing to sign up for 'over time'. People must use whatever weapons at their disposal to secure justice, one could argue and legitimate this kind of action in a key corporation. The term got me going, though.

What's 'work-to-rule'? It refers to the practice of working to the strictest interpretation of rules as per contract and job description therein. In terms of industrial action, it means that in contrast to a strike, workers do not withdraw their labour but instead stay on their jobs but drastically slow down operations by adhering to a narrow interpretation of work rules.

Common sense tells me that rules are made to ensure a minimum level of operational efficiency. That is, if worked just do what they are supposed to do, institutions will still make the margins. Apparently that's good only on paper; industries are typically given to extracting from the worker value that spills over the parameters of the contract and therefore working-to-rule cuts in on expected profits. The bosses are naturally made to squirm in degrees that correspond to their relevant greed.

We are talking here, however, about a State-owned enterprise, about a history of union action, and a certain way of doing things courtesy of resolute trade unionism and Leftist agitation that secured for the working class certain guarantees and a legal cushion to keep the bosses at bay, when and where necessary. Subject of course to the limitations that can be imposed citing Emergency Regulations and of course other more telling counter-measures such as thuggery.

We are talking of a work ethic and a particular kind of relationship between 'work' and 'rule'. Thanks to legal protection, the power that the strike-threat gives and poor management have given rise to a work culture where laziness, arrogance, passing-the-buck, poor attitude, utter inefficiency and impunity pervades the public sector.

People make sure they are 'in' on time. Once they are 'in', they can relax. They have a leisurely breakfast in the canteen to begin things. Then it's a matter of idling along until the tea-break. It's another 1.5-2.0 hours to lunch time. Time goes fast, work does not.

The post-lunch session is marked by 'waiting for the afternoon cup of tea'. Then it's 'getting ready to leave' time. If sign-out time is 4.45, 'signing-out' begins around 4.15; people have to get ready, freshen up and then line up wherever they have to sign-out.
It makes one actually want employees to do the work-to-rule thing, i.e. do some semblance of justice to job description.

This is not to say that all public servants are inefficient of course, but neither is the laid-back employee a rare exception in this sector. The point is that if work-to-rule implies the narrowest interpretation of contract, the 'minimum' amount of work that one can get away with without suffering punishment, then it is still 'more work' than really gets done in many State institutions.

I am not saying that the bosses are right or better of course, but the workers do lose some sting when they are forced by circumstances and draconian rules to resort to collective action if what they've mostly done is warm their bottoms and navel-gaze. They get high when it comes to the matter of 'rights' and has often been pointed out, many get F's for 'responsibility'. It is in this sense that working according to rules becomes a target to be achieved and not a fall-back option. The 'rule' is not behind, it is ahead.

There are other possible interpretations of 'work-to-rule', I realized. The term could be taken to mean, 'work is or should be paramount or the overriding element in an organization; everything else is or should be under 'work'. What we have instead, in many cases, is 'bluff rules'. And 'bluff' has stiff competition from 'incompetence', 'sloth' and 'thieving'.

Then there are some who are working-to-rule; that is, all the work they do is geared towards securing positions of power.

This is typical of political parties that engage in 'union work' as a platform from which they can, hopefully, achieve political objections that have little or nothing to do with workers' grievances, demands and other issues. That kind of 'work' we can do without, I believe, and should be punished come election time because that particular path to power necessarily hurts the public and abuses the workers.

So let's have it; have work-to-rule as a necessary first step in the journey towards a better national work ethic. Let's have work-to-rule; so that work supersedes everything else when it comes to reward (promotions, increments and other benefits), so that work (and not laziness, foot-dragging, inefficiency and incompetence) actually rules.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column titled 'Subterranean Transcripts' to the Daily Mirror (Fridays).  He can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com and followed on Twitter (malindasene) 


nilamal said...

You are absolutely right. If the public sector works to rule at all times our country would flourish. In Canada they just do that.They come in on time take their breaks on time and leave on time. The difference is that they put in 7 1/2 hours of solid work.