9-to-5 nightmares

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 July, 1995, 12:00am

FULL-TIME employment is something I have always distrusted. It requires you to get out of bed at a respectably early hour each morning and at the same time as everybody else, which in a 30-floor chicken coop, makes a mockery of the water pressure coming out of the hand-held telephone receiver in the bath tub's shower.

It demands that you return from the pub at a spoil-sportingly early hour of the afternoon and it invariably involves a desk which people keep checking on to see if you are behind it.

There are some advantages to a regular income for those who pay their bills on time, but salaried jobs provide no opportunity for claiming the full costs of Aunt Euphemia's hip-replacement operation against tax as a legitimate business expense. Self-employment admittedly requires a degree of civility towards clients. Full-time employment demands total obsequiousness towards superiors.

It is much better to be self-employed, or, if you are in Britain, not employed at all. In that country, GBP32 billion a year is spent on 'benefit' - the benefit of not working - including GBP5 billion on invalidity benefit, an amount so generous that perfectly fit people with barely a scratch on them can spend their days in leisure benefiting from it.

So could I, if I went back there. Ten years ago, I cut and scarred a lower leg on a sharp metal step rim on the stairs of a CMB bus. The withdrawal of some of that company's routes this week is obviously the Government's belated response to this.

Back in England, this would disqualify me as a male swim-wear model, the only job I am thoroughly trained for. I would be on 'invalidity' before you could say Chicago Hope. And you think I'm kidding, don't you? For the first time in 10 years, I departed from these sound principles in 1993 and took a salaried position with a publisher. It was a great opportunity to improve readers' minds and my liquidity. The gravity of my error dogs me still. Seven months after waking from the nightmare of a grown-ups' job where I had to do something every day, the employer and I are still related by marriage through a Labour Tribunal claim. It is he who took me there. Observers tell me that this turn of events is the equivalent of driving an eight-wheel articulated truck against the usual one-way traffic flow of employees dragging their employer to the tribunal - that's what the Employment Ordinance originally had in mind. But enough of these personal details, for the time being anyway.

The Labour Tribunal, for my part of Hong Kong, lives in Eastern Magistracy at Sai Wan Ho, a building in Institutional/Blockhouse/Modernity-style, which, if it had an architectural motto, would read: 'I Defend Against Those Whom I Serve.' It bunkers down by a glorious open vista of reclamation, which you reach by tobogganing down a slip road off the Eastern Expressway. To fully recapture the clammy horrors of employment, I decided instead to take the MTR for my 9.30 am tribunal hearing.

Despite my dark suit, I felt like a miscreant building labourer - so I decided to behave like one, bought a can of beer and slurped it down in a 'sitting out' area. Tipsy, I joined the queue for the lift. Typically of Blockhouse/Modernity buildings, the elevator design had estimated the population growth of Eastern District peasants over the coming decade and then slashed it by half. Entire families with breakfast still stuck in their teeth crevices barrelled in and out in delight at the prospect of taking their employers to the cleaners.

Given the scarcity of lifts - and that the proletariat move in and out of them with the vigour and focus of giant tortoises on a Morning Star Tour - it is best to plan for a 15-minute wait.

I could still have been sitting in the waiting room outside the court rooms to this day. The furniture is standard government issue in a brown-varnished wood that at once causes incontinence, then disguises it. Although the court lists are clearly posted, no one tells you when the court has started. There are no bells ringing in the crush bar telling you when the performance is about to 'commence'.

At the Labour Tribunal, everyone who has the bleariest hope of getting on before Christmas is called at 9.30 am. They all gather at the pokey bucket seats at the back of a court where natural light is more ruthlessly banished than the Dalai Lama from Tibet. (If the UN was publishing this - and I must count my blessings - that line would be taken out).

There was the inevitable and supplicatory queue of contestants showing the clerk of the court their ID cards. The showing of ID cards for every daily function in Hong Kong is now verging on gross indecency. We will soon have to flash them before we can use one of Ronald Leung Ding-bong's public bogs. My mean-minded former employer had dragged me along to this forsaken stretch of the island. Let him prove to her who I was. The clerk was having a hard enough time trying it herself. My card was issued circa late MacLehose and was more out of date than a High Court judge. I should have been banged up on the spot.

A refreshingly contemporary Chinese chairman took his seat under the royal coat of arms, motto Hoit Soi Qui Mal Y Fense, meaning: 'Anyone who bad mouths me is going to get seriously shafted.' I was second on the list, which proved to be an amazing hour away because the first case was a fireworks display of how dreadful employment can be. Listening to it, I knew that, even if I do not quite thrash my plaintiff, I will be giving up hosannahs to be out of full-time work.

It was a classic. A Filipina maid had been employed by a Chinese woman for all of five days - fresh from the Philippines - before she was fired. In this case, the almost universal irritation which lower middle and lower class Hong Kong Chinese feel towards Filipinos must have kicked in with the speed and force of a Manchester United striker.

The discord in court began in an argument over $20 here and $30 there. In the gallery, mobile phone carriers and tarts with crinkly hair does sniggered. Suddenly, through a round of talk involving a Philippine dialect being translated through Tagalog into English on one side, and Chinese through English doggerel to an English-speaking Chinese judge on the other, we realised that allegations of sexually transmitted disease, doctor's certificates and summary dismissal were at the centre of this drama.

I will never know how an employer can diagnose Hepatitis B within days of knowing a maid. I will never know why people of that background who do not know how to keep servants simply do not clean their own homes and save themselves the bother. I do not know either why the Filipina refused to take the air ticket and cash - and clear off out of this windowless nightmare. The case goes to trial.

So does mine as a matter of fact. The erudite magistrate did not see the case in quite the clear-cut, walk-over terms that my opposition did. Still, as the Filipina and I know, employment sticks to you like an oil spill to a sea bird. She should go freelance, like me.