By Hwaa Irfan
Based on Islamic Work Ethics from Traditional Islam in the Modern World by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
“According to Islamic Law, work itself, considered in its economic aspect, should be carried out following a contract based upon justice and responsibility on the side of the employer as well as the employee. The worker is responsible to both the employer and to God to carry out, to the best of his or her ability, the work which he or she has undertaken to accomplish on terms agreed by the two sides. Only then such a work be halal (that is religiously speaking legitimate). The conditions and terms include both the amount of work, whether it be the hours specified, the price to be paid or the quantity to be produced and the quality to be achieved. There is a very strong element present among traditional Muslims as ,as eating ‘halal bread ‘ is concerned; that is, gaining an earning which one deserves in accordance with the accomplishment of an agreed piece of work.
If the worker cheats the employer in either quantity or quality of the work to be accomplished according to their contract, then the earning is not halal and the consequences of ‘eating bread’ that is not halal fall upon both the worker and all those who benefit from his earnings. There has developed in fact, within Islamic societies, an elaborate system of giving alms, donations, etc., to make the earnings halal and to prevent the negative consequences which for believers include the possibility of the wrath of God descending upon them in the form of illness, loss of property and other countries.”
The aspect of contractual work has become a part of Western secular work mechanisms; however from the point of convenience, that contract is constructed from the point of the employer, recognizing (but no always) the rights of the employee. Increasingly contractual employment is based upon how much an employer can get out of the main mechanism of production, i.e. the employee. Labor relations are supposed to provide checks and balances in terms of employee rights through trade unions, which as we can see demonstrated in recent events in Wisconsin U.S. the state does as much as possible to undermine the representative power of the union. As such, the rights of the employee becomes undermine, and is faced with a choice, sometimes a Hobson’s Choice, to accept the contract given or to reject. This sets into motion a series of injustices depriving the employee of their rights as far as working hours, and quantity of work is concerned. This might be expressed by the employee by not doing their work to the best of their ability by reducing the quantity by taking longer to produce ‘x’ number of products, or not producing the quality that could be achieved with the resources at hand. In the long run, the situation consists of a haram/illegitimate work relation, which was set into motion by the employer not facilitating their responsibility, and by setting into motion a series of injustices. If an employee has not learnt their self worth, they may be willing to continue to work under such a situation, unless the situation makes it almost impossible for them to provide for themselves or their families. They will not recognize they have a choice, or feel that they have no choice which could involve:
- Correcting the situation through discussions with their employer
- Working through the Unions to ensure that the work is contracted in a manner that is based on justice and responsibility on the part of the employer and on the part of the employee
- Or seek alternative employment
However, an unjust employer will take the get out clause, and basically employ someone else, which reflects their attitude towards their employees as disposable income, seeking only to make the highest profit possible without the responsibility and system of justice that Islamically, and humanely be in place.
If the employee is not aware of the system of justice and responsibility, they may respond through a series of strike actions, which in reality, in the main, only addresses such material aspects like pay. This of course will be negotiated downwards having missed out the argument being struggled for in the Wisconsin protests, which is the argument of choice. By missing out on the opportunity to address work relations based on responsibility and justice on the part of the employer and the employee, one misses out on forming a healthy balanced working relationship that will benefit the employer, the work, long term relations, and a happy workforce, which one must adds leads to a work environment that is productive all round.
However, in saying all of the above, the fault is not always on the side of the employer. Sometimes, it is the case that am employee seeks only self accomplishment, status, or to simply a social atmosphere away from home. All of these reasons sets up a system of imbalance within the work environment amongst fellow employees, unnecessary competitiveness, and a system of mistrust based on envy, jealously, and the mistaken belief in the concept of the ‘right to work’. If the argument of ‘right to work’ is not halal in nature, i.e. it does not possess a system of responsibility or justice on the part of the employee, then the earnings from that employment is in fact haram, i.e. illegitimate . If a contract is in place, this means that the employee has agreed to a contract that he or she has no intention of fulfilling, or that the nature of the contract is one that allows for the mistaken notion of ‘right to work’ without the checks and balances of work relations and conditions i.e. justice and responsibility on the part of the employer and the employee. This them clouds the working relations, and makes it difficult to resolve without a clear notion of satisfactory conditions of work, and healthy long term work relations. That should include the notion that the employee is a human being whose life includes work as a part of their lives, but not the whole of their lives thus turning them into cogs in a wheel.
The only way that the clouds can be removed is if the honourable employee seeks honourable work, or to correct the work conditions for the good of all, including the employer. This means that they must recognize their self worth, and their skill, and be willing to improve their skill in order to form a qualitative performance. Also, it becomes incumbent on the employer to be open to dialogue, for in the long run, it will lead to maintaining the skills developed within the working environment offered that is contractually stated, and a contract that is open to the lessons from learning. This will leave aside the employer who only sees their employees as a disposable, and replaceable resource, and the employee who only seeks their own interest without a sense of responsibility, obligation or sense of justice , for these employees will never contribute to a happy workforce unless the nature of the work, and the conditions of the work is one that will nurture these qualities thus making the work and earnings thereof legitimate.