According to a feature in today’s Dominion Post, “one in five Kiwi workers suffer from workplace bullying, one of the worst rates in the world”.
A joint university research team – from Auckland, Waikato, Massey and London – polled more than 1700 workers from the health, education, hospitality and travel sectors asking how frequently they were exposed to “negative acts” at work.
Overall 17.8 per cent of respondents were identified as victims of bullying.
The international range was claimed to be between 5 per cent and 20 per cent.
Higher rates of bullying were found in the education and health sectors and hospitality area kitchens.
According to the study, bullying included bosses picking on workers, workers harassing colleagues and workers intimidating bosses.
The main preoccupation of the study was not worker’s welfare, but capitalist profits.
Lead researcher Professor Tim Bentley said the cost of bullying had been estimated in Britain at $NZ2165 per person each year and almost $NZ5.23 billion per year in Australia.
Bullying hit costs because of decreases in productivity due to worker absenteeism, staff turnover, lower staff satisfaction and time spent investigating bullying.
He wailed that workplace bullying in New Zealand could be “a billion-dollar problem”.
“Workplace bullying” is a relatively new sociological discovery and when I started my working life forty years ago, bullying was something that happened only to unfortunate school kids. So has workplace bullying just appeared or were we previously just too insensitive to notice it?
When it comes to recognising the realities of industrial relations bosses are usually streets ahead of learned academics.
So this time round I wasn’t surprised to I find myself in some agreement with David Lowe from the Employers and Manufacturers Association, who complained that the “negative acts” research question was too wide. “What people would normally describe as bullying and `two negative acts in the workplace’ are not one and the same,” Lowe said.
“If somebody had said to the person, `you’re not doing well enough, you need to do it better’, and told them that twice in one week, that might amount to bullying under this survey, but it is not bullying, it is simply running your business.”
Of course what David Lowe leaves out of his picture is the capitalist power relationship and drive for profit, but that’s essentially what the government commissioned survey does too.
Mixing up ” bosses picking on workers, workers harassing colleagues and workers intimidating bosses” as if all were the same thing is an idiocy which could only emerge from the rarefied high altitude atmosphere of academia.
If any worker looks like annoying, let alone “intimidating” their boss, that boss can warn or sack the worker and, if required, have the cops there in two seconds to get the recalcitrant intimidator off the bosses’ private property. If a worker is picked on by the boss, there are three main possible outcomes. On an organised site, worker solidarity and union support can offer some redress. For a well paid worker, the services of a lawyer might get some reprieve. For the great mass of New Zealand workers today, those two solutions are not available. Most workers systematically picked on by their boss can only lump it or leave.
What about workers harassing colleagues?
Looking back on my own work years, I can recall some, but not very much. As a teenage apprentice I was gleefully subjected to teasing and practical jokes, none of which left lasting scars. The ritual game had limits and was clearly a product of boredom rather than malice. There is a difference between horseplay and harassment, occasionally blurred, but usually apparent.
I can’t really speak about office jobs, but in factory and cleaning jobs, my experience of the culture is overwhelmingly one of respect and consideration for your workmates.
Human behaviour is conditioned by material circumstances. Generally, the higher level of organisation, the more civilised the general behaviour. On a low paid unorganised job where you have to run all the time, tempers get frayed, it’s everyone for themselves and some get hurt. These days, with union organisation at an all time low, and stress levels high, there probably is generally more inconsiderate behaviour across worksites. There may well be more incidents of basically powerless people picking on a weaker looking workmate just to give their own battered ego a boost.
Academics depicting desperate worker alienation as similar behaviour to employer harassment solve nothing. Insofar as their overpaid efforts affect anything at all, they help perpetuate capitalist injustice, by drawing a false picture of it.