Sarah Taylor reflects on the case of a French migrant worker in a battle with her employer and the courts
In late August I attended a court case of a female factory worker who was suing her employers for negligence. How I came to be there in the first place is not important, but what I observed and saw that day made me want to share the experience. I have attended a few court cases as an observer in the public gallery.
The case involved a French migrant worker who was suing her employers for negligence in a personal injury case. She had been told to lift a container off a factory conveyor belt and in the process had badly injured her wrist. She testified that she was instructed to do so by an aggressive line manager whose bullying and aggressive behavior had made her working life miserable. After the injury had occurred she had decided to seek compensation since it had rendered her unable to work for some time.
The barrister hired by the company to defend itself against the charge of negligence mounted a cross-examination of the woman. His central argument was that her account of the accident was inconsistent and ultimately contrived. In tedious and pedantic detail he went over her account of the accident, her written and then oral testimony, and the discrepancies between them. Having found little evidence to support his accusation that the woman was a liar, he decided to imply that her behavior had been motivated by a desire to malinger and claim a handsome fee in state incapacity benefit. He proceeded to try and humiliate the woman by implying she was work-shy and asking her to disclose what he imagined to be some tremendous gap between her earnings at the factory and the exorbitant state benefits she was receiving for incapacity.
Surprisingly the sums did not add up. The woman replied with poise and self-respect and rejected the barrister’s assertions, especially since his calculations were shown to be ridiculous in the face of the meager amount she received in state benefits. Added to this she informed the court that the state had reduced the amount of benefit she could receive and had made the terms on which she could receive it much more difficult. The cross-examination followed the line of thought that has become the staple of right wing and centre ground politics.
The case itself was a farce, for the woman was claiming about five or six thousand pounds for a disability that had caused her to be absent from work for two or three years. In other words the amount she was claiming was not at all representative of the actual harm caused to her earnings by the original injury.
Moreover the company could have settled the issue by reaching an out of court settlement, accepting liability, and paying the woman compensation. Instead it had decided to pursue an expensive and time-consuming legal process. As a result what was more interesting to me than the barrister’s loathsome behavior, was the incredibly aggressive and vitriolic atmosphere of the courtroom that day reinstating from the observer’s of the case. Whilst the barrister was doing his determined best to defeat the woman, I noticed those sitting in the public gallery.
The woman’s supporters were completely outnumbered by a group of men dressed in suits and looking glumly on at the proceedings. Their expressions were visibly hostile and they shook their heads and looked skeptical and angry by the woman’s testimony. The atmosphere was heavy and tense, and this cut against what seemed to be a fairly minor and small case of personal injury.
The bullying manager, when giving testimony, denied she had mistreated her staff and spoke of the team building and positivity she had tried to instill in the factory workers. She spoke in the usual vacuous language of managers, those who have very little power but seek to make the lives of those they consider to be their inferiors, truly miserable. She described how she was always fair to those she supervised, gave them regular breaks, never asked them to extend themselves physically beyond their capabilities. In this case she felt the need to inform the court that the female worker had often failed to be productive and frequently seemed to question her instructions and generally cause disruption. In other words, her commitment to the cause of defending herself and the company was without hesitation.
During the manager’s testimony the woman broke down and became distressed. Later her own barrister decided to provide further background to the woman’s personal life and history in an attempt to show how her vulnerability had made her more likely to accede to the demands of her manager. Throughout this miserable account of the woman’s past history, we heard how she had suffered physical abuse as a child at the hands of a violent father and had then been through a series of abusive sexual relationships with men, before fleeing to England to escape a violent husband.
The case was not one of great drama or spectacle, but what made it both infuriating and interesting to me was the draconian treatment the woman faced for daring to ask for compensation. Why was this company so determined to prove the woman wrong? The case was not recorded in the local press and there was no wider attention drawn to it other than the woman’s family and the staff and management of the company. Why was this woman being forced to confront her employers in an expensive and pain-staking legal process? What this confrontation ultimately about?
The woman I observed that day in the courtroom was really very powerless in the face of a strange and abstract process that had very little to do with her life and problems. The pomp and circumstance of the English legal system are obvious. When entering these spaces you prepare yourself for the absurdity, ritualism, and medievalism of the process, and their political implications.
But sitting in the courtroom I found myself becoming increasing agitated as I was powerfully reminded of how resistance to the power of the law is futile. The woman could not protest at her treatment, nor could I or anyone else sympathetic to her intervene in the face of the intimidator nature of the proceedings. For law is the set of rules that govern society and its enforcement cannot be challenged since force is the foundation of the law and the law by its nature enforces the power of the strong against the weak, the propertied against the propertyless.
Equally, it reminded me that whether confronted with Goldman Sachs or Ginsters pasty manufacturers, the behavior of employers and businesses is consistent and unchanged. It is exploitative, deeply personal, and can always ultimately rely on the conservative nature of the law, to subordinate the workers to the authority of the state and capital. The economic oppression practiced by employers is not an oppression which simply works towards calculated notions of efficiency and profit. It is as much the expression of domination and aggression as it is self-interest and avarice.
Leaving the courtroom that day I wondered what role if any the woman’s trade union had played in providing her with support. Surely her isolation would not have been so complete if she had had support from an organisation capable of providing her with advice and help? But I then asked myself how differently the rules of engagement would have been that day if she had received the support of a union in her dispute.
Would not the engagement of another legal organisation in this situation have worked to reinforce the authority of the law rather than support her claims for vindication? Ultimately I thought, engagement with the law means submitting to its absurd and oppressive rituals and to its authority. Of course we submit to the authority of the law on a daily basis without thinking, but it is easy forget the role the law plays in creating the social relations between the workers and ruling class.
When I discuss the nature of trade unions and I raise the legal dimension of their status as organisations for collective bargaining in the economy, people look at me as if I had failed to grasp the rudimentary principles of Marxist theory. However, the collective bargaining between a trade union and a company as juristic entities, is a legal relationship. The workers, who are represented by union officials, have to accept the legal process of negotiations, since they are governed by the rules of this interaction.
How can we as workers be politically aware of the deep level of oppression workers face at the hands of their employers, an oppression which is often highly personal and vindictive and often most manifest in times of wage disputes and working conditions, and yet submit ourselves so naively to these rules of engagement? Surely the question of worker organising needs to take into account the way in which the law will always ultimately deliver a judgment in favor of the propertied and the powerful, as against the claims of those whose position in the social hierarchy is considered to pose a threat to the security and authority of both the law and capital.