02 May, 2009

Lazy workers and neo-colonial managers

I've heard this so many times in recent months: foreign managers or factory owners complaing about the (lack of) "culture" or laziness of Egyptian workers, who for some reason just don't want to work. Not to mention that they are ungrateful - after receiving training and skills they often leave to look for better opportunities elsewhere, as the manager of a Turkish company complains in Al-Youm Al-Sabi3 (but isn't that just a natural consequence of the "free labour market?").

To me it sounds a lot like the racist attitudes to the "natives" that were often expressed by foreign managers and colonial officials during the late 19th and early 20th century. For example, Brigadier General Macauley, as head of Egyptian State Railways, complained in 1919 that there was a peculiar "oriental" attitude toward work and wages:

"The native way of looking at such matters differs entirely from the European: the native considers that he is entitled to pay in proportion to his expenses, whatever these latter may happen to be; and the European expects to give and receive pay according to his skill and efficiency." (quoted from Beinin & Lockman's Workers on The Nile)

In other words, the railway workers' demands to receive a living wage was dismissed as an expression of an irrational oriental attitude to work. Personally, I think that if you pay your workers 150-300 Egyptian pounds per month (which won't bring them and their families above the poverty limit) you shouldn't be surprised if they will do anything to escape work or leave as soon as they find another opportunity.

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