Thursday, February 07, 2008

Limits: They Do a Girl Good

I've still not been able to sit and have the big contract and salary-negotiating meeting with Hugh Marlboro. First he was out of the office, then I went home early one day, then there were the riots, and now he is in South Africa. I am already a week over my período de experiência of 3 months, and while I was glad to accept a very low salary during this trial period, I would like to sit down and figure out just what the Banana Empire is willing to pay me for my work.

You see, I dish out this exact advice all the time to the boys in the warehouse. Don't work if you haven't already clarified your what your wages will be. Don't work overtime without compensation. Be assertive and ask for what you know your work is worth. Don't let management brush you off. Fight for your rights as a worker. Today I put my money where my mouth is, so to speak.

Ludmila, a person with whom I already have a complicated relationship for several reasons, interrupted me while I was having a conversation with Ahmed and demanded that I come upstairs with her, that she had some work for me to do. Mind you, Ludmila is not remotely my boss. The way she approached me really rubbed me the wrong way, especially since she was asking me to cover her work, do *her* a favor, with a tone of voice that was as if I'd screwed up somehow and she was now doleing out the consequences. I told Ludmila that I was in the middle of a conversation with Ahmed, that I'd go upstairs as soon as we'd finished speaking. She looked at me and said, "Make it quick," then turned and headed up to her office. Oh, that was not the way I wanted to start out my day...

When I finally went up to Ludmila's office, she handed me a stack of legal documents and told me that a group of trabalhadores would be coming into the office this morning to look for her, that I must give them the legal papers on her behalf, have them sign a receipt form, direct them to the agricultural workers' syndicate, and set a meeting for the 10th to discuss labor relations. Then I was to track down phone numbers for about 20 depot workers, call them to reprimand them for not showing up to a contract meeting, then ask them to come to the office on the 14th.

Then, once I'd received those instructions and agreed to help her out, Ludmila raised her eyebrows and said, "So, can I give you some more work?" Excuse me? No, not really. I'm currently working without a defined salary, without any job description, without having been able to sit and give input to my boss about my experiential period, and Ludmila wants to give me work that she herself can't get to? Whatever. I told her quite simply, "No, I'd rather you didn't."

She just about keeled over when I said that, then asked why I was unwilling to do her work. I calmly explained that, while I was happy to do her a favor and do the tasks she'd already passed on, I wasn't inclined to do much of anything else until Hugh Marlboro and I have had a chance to sit down and discuss my salary and contract. Ludmila said, "But we're all a family here. Nobody will give you a salary that is unfair! You shouldn't worry about it. Go ahead and keep working."

"Sorry," I said, "I have a right to know what my salary will be before taking on work. More than anything, I want to have a clear agreement about the terms of my employment so that we can avoid resentment in the future."

Ludmila looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. I didn't care. Especially after finding out yesterday what Ahmed and Paulo are being payed as a salary. I won't put the specific figure, but suffice to say it's shockingly low for what they do here at the company, especially considering that Paulo is in the midst of getting his degree in management! College, people! These are not physical laborers, yet their wages would lead you to think otherwise.

I spent about an hour in the morning resolving Ludmila's human resources problems. I made my calls, scheduled the labor meetings as requested, and attended to the 7 men who came in to receive the legal-looking notifications. I had a look at what I was giving them, and I felt a bit depressed when I saw a typical legal-ese letter, referencing articles in the Labor Code, and using archaic and complex terms that even *I* need a dictionary to understand.

I recognize the need to deliver certain information in a legally sound manner, in accordance with time-honored structures and regulations. However, why must there be such a gargantuan gap between the language used to deliver a message and the language necessary for the recipient to understand it? Is it not possible to make two versions of a notice, one that is legally sound, then one that puts the document into layman's terms so that the recipient has a fighting chance of understanding it??

The essence of the document was that these men had been caught stealing bananas from the trucks - 90 kilos, to be exact - and reselling them on the local markets for a profit. As a result, they had been suspended for two weeks, and were being fined the equivalent of 20 day's wages for the infraction. I had to give them the letter, have them sign a copy of it for our records, then direct them to the syndicate to clarify any questions before the big resolution meeting with the company next week.

One man, when it came time to sign the receipt acknowledging he'd received the document, obviously struggled to form the letter 'F', then the letter 'e', then the letter 'r' as he tried to print his name. He managed to scrawl out 'Fer', then stopped, pen hovering awkwardly over the paper. Ahmed was in the office with me (he was covering Roberto's day shift), as was another of the banana workers involved in the theft case. The guy's friend prompted him, saying "next comes 'N'", and drawing the letter on the palm of his hand. It wasn't enough, and Ahmed quickly scanned the top of my desk for something that could help. He found a report cover with big, bold letters in the title. "Here, like this one," he said, and pointed to the 'N' in 'PLANTATION'. Then came 'A'. Ahmed and I both pointed it out on the report cover, our fingers knocking in mid-air. We went on like this until the guy had laboriously printed his name on the piece of paper.

"Hey, brother," Ahmed said, pointing a finger at the guy, "you've got to copy your name 1,000 times so that you get used to writing it!"

I was incredibly humbled by the experience. This was the first time in my entire life I'd come across someone incapable of printing his own name. I've worked with many illiterate people over the years, but all of them have been capable of printing their name, even if it is just a collection of initials.

"What happens to people like him?" I asked Ahmed. "How on earth will he understand the letter I've just given him? Is there someone at the syndicate that will sit with him and explain what is in this notification, what he is being punished for?"

"In theory, yes, there should be someone available to help represent workers who are illiterate." He shrugged his shoulders, then continued, "But I don't know...I've never worked with anyone from a syndicate. I don't know if it really happens like it should."

I would be curious to know myself. Is there anyone who will sit with this man and explain, step-by-step, the process he is about to go through? Though I felt inclined to do it myself, not only is it not my job, *I* didn't even understand the full contents of the legal document.

Yet another reason I want to have this overdue meeting with Hugh Marlboro: if my job here is to include resolving human resources issues, a distinct possibility since there is nobody dedicated to that function at the moment, my salary expectations are going to go way up. While certainly an important part of running a company, especially given my recent rants about low salaries and management providing adequate compensation to the workers, I absolutely DETEST working in human resource management. We all have our price, however...


Monkey McWearingChaps said...

Hey Ali, I just want to say that while that old legalese stuff still flies many places (*rolls eyes*) there is a significant change in the profession to start writing/communicating in clear, simple english (or language of choice).

IMO people who rely entirely or significantly on "terms of art" to communicate legal points are POOR WRITERS. Not surprising considering how many people they let in to the profession every year...

This is all to say that you are not at all off in your frustration. Sometimes terms of art/legal language is unavoidable, but it's often just bandied about to make laypeople feel small.


one transactional lawyer who doesn't rely on legalese to communicate,


Ali la Loca said...

~Monkey - I am soooo glad to hear this! I also agree that overly flourished legal-ese writing is a sign of someone who is perhaps unable to distill a message down to its essence, in addition to being used to enforce a sense of hierarchy.