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What 'didn't' Ratan Tata say?

Last updated on: May 27, 2011 14:53 IST

What 'didn't' Ratan Tata say?

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Shyamal Majumdar in Mumbai

When his comments on the work ethic of British workers and their unwillingness to work out of hours were widely reported, Ratan Tata quickly distanced himself from the row caused by his remarks.

But a survey done by The Mail, London the following week suggested that Mr Tata may have unwittingly revealed an uncomfortable truth.

An Indian friend posted in a bank in London said too many of his British colleagues suffer from a behaviour called professional automation, a phrase he borrowed from the book - The Peter Principle.

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Photographs: Daniel Munoz/Reuters
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To the professionally-automated, it is clear that means are more important than the ends; the paperwork is more important than the purpose for which it was originally designed.

The professionally-automated worker no longer sees himself as existing to serve the public; he sees the public as the raw material that serves to maintain him, the forms, the ritual, the hierarchy.

A vast majority of government officials in India would of course find all this too familiar, but let's for the moment stick to the British work culture - now in the limelight because of Mr Tata.

The Tata Group chief's reported observations are in consonance with the concerns expressed in the past by many British government officials including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

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In a keynote speech at an event in London, Mr Brown said parents must want their children to do better than they did themselves but that this "cannot be achieved without people themselves adopting work ethic and aiming high."

British employers themselves have berated the failings of the local workforce several times. For example, a survey by the British Chambers of Commerce had revealed the rock-bottom opinion held by bosses of many British workers.

The survey said bosses are being forced to hire record numbers of migrants because they have a shockingly low opinion of local British workers.

The bosses of more than 300 small and medium-sized businesses were asked: "What reasons do you have for employing migrant workers?" The answer: migrant workers from anywhere from Poland to India have a better work ethic and are more productive and that British workers also lack the required skills.

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An opinion that has been gaining ground is blaming the lazy work culture to generous unemployment benefits.

A report by the Centre for Economic Performance said there are 2.6 million adults who claim the handout meant for the sick and incapable, with around 20 per cent thought to be fully able but unwilling to work.

The report said it has long been recognised that generous unemployment benefits create moral hazard - workers are partly protected against the consequences of being unemployed, so they are less likely to work or search for jobs with the same intensity.

A reader of the report promptly wrote that the newcomers (migrant workers) have a better work ethic and are more productive as they have not been worn down by years of living in "rip-off Britain".

"Once they have benefited from all that Britain has to offer, perhaps then the newcomers will not be quite as productive as they are now," he wrote.

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Finally, I am tempted to give a few examples of the "work ethic" from my personal experience during a trip to Europe.

On our way from Switzerland to Italy, the bus hired by our tour organiser from a British transport company - broke down in the middle of nowhere.

An hour later, the driver informed us that he has telephoned his boss and that "nothing else can be done though things are looking bleak." So, we had to wait.

Another couple of hours and a few frantic calls by the passengers themselves saw the arrival of a mechanic who could speak only French and hence could not communicate with the driver who knew only pucca British English.

The sign language went on for a few minutes, after which the driver said things are looking doubtful because the mechanic apparently hasn't experienced such a problem before. In any case, it was lunch time for both; so we had to wait for some more time.

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The engine finally came back to life after a five-hour ordeal, but the driver announced that he has to take rest for at least half an hour more because he is not supposed to be "at work" for more than four hours at a stretch!

Here is another one from another European country.

In Paris, our local tourist guide cheerfully informed us that the tube (metro rail) drivers are on a flash strike and, therefore, we can be assured of a relatively easy city tour as most office-goers have skipped work.

So Paris will be less crowded and she can end the tour much earlier than scheduled.

I am now a firm supporter of what Mr Tata says he didn't say.

 


Photographs: Reuters
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