The Cognitive Backyard

Social Class Discrimination at Work

I am neither a Marxist nor I find myself completely in agreement with Karl Marx, however, I am sometimes fascinated by him. He identified many problems with the budding capitalist, industrialist western society of the 19th century. Marx essentially based his economic philosophy on the basis of class discrimination in the capitalist world. He divided the capitalist society into two distinct social classes; bourgeoisie (haves) and proletariat (have-nots). The social class discrimination in Marxist terms is based on the ownership of means of production; those who own the means of production (bourgeoisie, haves) and those who do not (proletariat, have-nots).

Marx had described at length how the bourgeoisie, in his view, exploited the proletariat because of their capital ownership and how it affected the proletariat. In this lengthy elaboration, he had examined a phenomenon, which is now called in English as ‘alienation’ (Gordon 1991), which has been interpreted in a number of ways. However, one interpretation of Marx’s alienation is that a worker’s association with his work ceased as soon as he departed from his work with his wage in his hand. Marx believed that the worker no longer identified with their work and took it only as a means of earning income. Thus, he was disassociated with his work and, therefore, felt alien to socio-economic activity. I am pretty sure that this Marx’s concept of ‘alienation’ leads to demotivation and inefficiency in workers among other things; which are two of the greatest concerns for modern Management science researchers, and it still exists albeit it is rarely acknowledged.

I believe so because I have observed this in existing Human Resource practices within Pakistan.

Class Discrimination in Our Times

Discrimination has many shapes and colors, and it is hard to discriminate among them which one is uglier. There is a lot of talk of discrimination in scholarly and Management science research circles as far as recruitment and selection and promotion policies are concerned. Unfortunately, in our society discrimination is only understood in terms of “glass ceiling” due to external cultural influences.

Interestingly, this is not without cause, “glass ceiling” as a term is generally associated with gender discrimination against women because the term was coined by a woman. In 1979, Katherine Lawrence of Hewlett Packard coined the term at a conference by Women’s Institute of the Freedom of the Press. The term was used during a debate in the conference on Hewlett Packard’s promotion policy towards women. Since then the term has come to define discrimination against women.

Modern dictionary definition of the term says that glass ceiling is an “unfair system or set of attitudes that prevents some people (such as women or people of a certain race) from getting the most powerful jobs”. (Webster 2015)

Clearly, gender bias is not the only kind of discrimination that exists in today’s workplace. Human Resource practices in Pakistan are more exploitative than it is reasonably permissible – or that may be considered within ethical limits. I mean to say that while it may be legally normal for an employer to formulate policies to protect its interests as well as profits within the framework of the law. However, in a country like ours there is a lack of adequate labor welfare and anti-discrimination laws as well as enforcement of any existing laws which gives the “bourgeoisie” the liberty to unethically and illegally bend the workers to their will.

This exploitation is further exacerbated due to a very large population and high unemployment. The employers exploit their workers with a peace of mind and without a fear of reprimand because they know that even if their employee turnover rate increases there will be many available to fill in the empty positions, and that there are high chances that these replacements will come at cheaper rates, and there is hardly a forum or an authority which might work to defend workers against practices such as class discrimination.

The Curious Case of Office Boys

I am personally quite against the “office boy” culture in Pakistan, as I have never been exposed to work environments in other countries so I am not aware if you are familiar with “office boys”. But it is a given in Pakistan and I find this practice quite primordial as well as imperialist. Office boy is any office’s factotum in Pakistani corporate culture, doing all kinds of odd work from cleaning, mopping, operating copiers, acting as runners and dispatchers, to making tea and arranging lunch for the staff of his office among other things. They are generally inhumanly treated and are paid at pathetically exploitative rates. The kinds of rates that make you think how can one support his family in such an income in prevailing inflation rate.

What makes their condition worse is the fact that there is absolutely no discussion anywhere that considers any aspect of their welfare. In most offices, preference is given to ‘applicants’ for office boy job who have completed at least some level of schooling. In “good” or large organizations, only middle or matriculation passed (O-level equivalent) applicants are hired as office boys with hardly any difference in compensation from the rest of the job market. A very few among them have the capacity, opportunity or intent to further enhance their education or skills to grow professionally. Every now and then, an office boy is implicated in some kind of unethical or illegal activity in the office such as theft, which in my view is often due to their social position.

However, what has recently disappointed me more is a curious case of one office boy I have personally observed trying hard to make it big.

I will not name him or his employer in order to protect his job, therefore, let us call him Mr. A.

In a certain large Pakistani organisation, Mr. A joined as an office boy several years ago after his matriculation. He kept studying through distance education and coupled with his hard work and dedication, he was elevated as an Office Assistant sometime after he completed his Higher Secondary School Certification (A-level equivalent). Office Assistants are generally only different from office boys in the sense that they are only limited to paperwork, filing, copying, running and dispatching, they do not do cleaning, mopping or any other similar work. However, they are paid only slightly better and still at a rate that cannot afford a family in current inflation rate no matter how modest a lifestyle.

But Mr. A did not give up his hopes for a better life and a respectable white-collar job. He knew that the minimum qualification criterion for an entry-level management position in his organisation was 14 years of formal education and that he was only 2 years away from achieving his dream. So he kept studying further and kept learning and improving professional office skills. He also strived hard to constantly improve his English communication skills knowing the fact that our corporate culture, and our national obsession with the Anglo-American world, favours those who are proficient with the English language. If you understand Pakistani culture, speaking English proficiently, and like a native, is a privilege and only limited to affluent families who can afford westernised schooling in Pakistan. But, Mr. A does not come from an affluent westernised (or mummy-daddy as it is called in Pakistani slang) privileged background.

Year after year his qualifications kept improving, he now holds a Master degree from a reputable public University and is halfway through another Master degree in Business Administration bringing his total years of formal qualification at 17. One would imagine that he would have successfully achieved his dream and would be placed in a respectable managerial position. However, he is still an Office Assistant.

He is diligent, meticulous, focused worker and have never been found demotivated or ignoring his responsibilities even though he feels he has not been duly rewarded. His boss has recommended him for promotion several times, however, the promotion (and the better quality of life) he so desires has not come so far. He has come to believe that his humble background, and social class, is the only barrier between him and a white-collar job. He finds a “glass-ceiling” between him and a management position. He is compelled to think that there is an unspoken and unwritten policy somewhere that has been blocking his further elevation.

Mr. A is an admirable person because he is responsible, reliable, and relentlessly hardworking. It is hard for me to imagine how he must have done what he has. It is impossible to imagine for someone in Pakistani society where incomes do not rise as inflation does, where every salaried person is forced to prioritize even basic needs of life like food, shelter, education and health, a person like Mr. A has untiringly worked hard to achieve higher education all the time he was full-time employed with a meagre salary and a family to provide for. But instead of recognition, appreciation, and reward, he is still occupying the same position and the same low salary without any possible explanation except disguised social class discrimination.

Such disparage of human resource is not uncommon in Pakistan, and there is no law or authority which provides relief for such cases of exploitation and discrimination. And whatever law and the process of its implementation exist in Pakistan also always favours only the bourgeoisie.

There is a huge research gap in Pakistan in all academic fields, and such cases provide ample cause to study them academically and finding their solutions instead of reinventing the “motivation” and “job satisfaction” wheel in every academic research going on in Pakistan in the field of Management science.

Mr. A asks me whenever we meet to suggest him solutions, and with all my limited knowledge and expertise I can only advise him to switch job. In our hearts, both of us know that this too is not as easy as it seems for a person without a background and a reference. We both privately agree; Karl Marx was not completely wrong.

References:

  1. Gordon, S. (1991). The Marxian Theory of Society. In The History and Philosophy of Social Science (p. 330). London: Routledge.
  1. Webster, M. (2015). “Definition of Glass Ceiling.” Retrieved September 16, 2015, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/glass ceiling.

Author

Bilal Khan

I am a Lahore, Pakistan, based researcher in the fields of Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration.
  • Naeem Liaquat

    Human Resource Management; term amid organizational efficiency and effectiveness through human capital. But in our Pakistan, underemployment is common practice, and perceived HRM practice is ‘hire bndy’ with no concern what actually is the need of organization, and suitable resource, with no concern on professional and personal development of employees.
    I admire system of Pakistan Army where on can join as officer but promotion is clearly based on level of professional qualification and courses acquired by the incumbent. Glass ceiling effect cannot be seen in that system.
    Actually we dont have sense to understand the myth of HRM. What can you if Plans are set by Top Management and communicated to line Managers with one choice “obey”. This is habit of our Pakistan “Kaly Angraz”
    Actually i feel Organizational goals shall be set by TOP Management taking on board input from Middle Managers, Line Managers and worker; as they only now the actual scene of the game. Departmental goals shall be devised at department level with specific outcome aligned to Org Goals. Decentralize the system for optimum performance. But unfortunately reverse is the situation in our country.
    We have habit to hire people from outside depriving off promotion to existing capable employees. The result is very much clear i.e dissatisfaction. Organizational if owes efforts of employees is become “Employer Brand”
    Based on my knowledge, i suggest HR Practices in Pakistan is just an eye wash

    • So true Naeem. However, you will agree that we humans have a tendency to bypass systems, and find loopholes to make things and decisions suitable to our interests. And when the whole system is based on such a foul race, only those with a privilege will win. There has to be a properly encompassing law, and its implementation in letter and spirit, to ensure that the human instincts of foul play and exploiting others do not overcome any system.

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