By Rania Tsoli,
Work plays, without a doubt, an integral part in one’s life: to work means to socialize, learn, adapt, create, and evolve. Through a job, we can contribute to our society in myriad of ways, depending on the professional path we choose to follow. However, behind closed office doors, things may not always run as smoothly as one might think. It is not rare for complications to arise and conflicts to take place; in fact, many would characterize tension in the workplace as an incredibly common occurrence. Such agitation in a professional environment may stem from many underlying issues, which unfortunately include the possibility of abuse of power, manipulation and gaslighting in the workplace. Such situations – where respect and boundaries seem to be of little importance to some, especially those in power – can easily lead to an unhealthy and toxic relationship between an employee and their employer, making the phenomenon known as “labour exploitation” all the more frequent.
In order for us to be able to tell what labour exploitation looks like, and therefore acquire the knowledge of how to fight it, let us start by defining the issue: labour exploitation can be interpreted as the abuse of people in the workplace for profit, whether the profit is of financial nature or more of a personal gain of sorts. This kind of abuse can be direct and brutal or much less obvious; whatever the case may be, its impact can be devastating for victims, whether that is in a psychological, physical, emotional or financial manner. Workers are vulnerable to exploitation from a number of people: they can be directly exploited and abused by an owner or a manager of a business, or sometimes by someone who works for those in charge. The exploitation of employees in the workplace can appear in various shapes and forms, making the matter all the more complex: from unsanitary accommodations to unnecessary judgmental attitudes and problems with the workers’ salaries and paychecks, the list of things that fall under the category goes on. There are plenty of telltale signs that can help us recognize labour exploitation for what it is; however, it might take a while for some of them to present themselves, seeing as many people might be slyer than others when it comes to manipulating someone.
The progress might sometimes be slow, but taking the time to patiently examine our emotional and psychological state as well as certain people’s behaviors and patterns more closely while at work is the only way for us to identify the phenomenon and start looking for ways to deal with it. Starting off with processing our own feelings and instincts, not being as satisfied with our job as we once were is one of the strongest hints that things could be better in the workplace. A creative task slowly turns into a tiring and boring chore that needs to be done; one starts losing their passion and motivation for the job that they once found pleasure and stimulation in, something which usually indicates that they are not as happy at work as they used to be. These feelings of dissatisfaction, boredom and even dread can sometimes be the product of having to do other people’s work for them or being forced to work long hours and double shifts. It is only natural for someone to find situations like this unfair and to end up feeling like their personal life is not being taken as seriously as that of some of their coworkers or bosses – especially when someone in a higher position does not seem to think much of a worker’s right to have a break during the day or some time off work. Pair this with late paychecks and unpaid extra shifts, and you have a prime and concrete example of the exploitation of labour.
Leaning more into how a manager or boss can make us have negative thoughts and emotions in a professional environment, we can start off with one of the strongest signs of manipulation in the workplace, which is no other than direct communication with someone in a higher position always feeling like an unnecessarily difficult task. An employee might constantly find themselves being unable to trust their superiors, avoiding saying no or having to walk on eggshells out of fear of their reaction to a discussion; such feelings of distrust and uneasiness may stem from a superior’s tendency to pressure their employees, intimidate them verbally or adopt a passive-aggressive behavior when talking with them. Through said behavior, a boss or a manager can easily guilt trip someone who works for them, making it almost impossible for the latter to refuse to do things, or to muster up the courage to leave the company or establishment all together. That is where gaslighting usually comes to play: refusing to admit to any wrongdoings or pulling the card of acting surprised when confronted or questioned on something are just some of the many methods that people in higher positions use in order to get what they want – whether that is by abusing their power for financial profit or for an emotional advantage over an employee of theirs. However, manipulation can come in more discreet forms, which include keeping employees in the dark regarding important decisions and withholding vital information from them, avoiding providing clarity on various matters and prompting built-up confusion in the workplace. Finally, having a superficially charming attitude, faking familiarity and sympathy as well as insincerely praising an employee make up the epitome of slyness and cunningness. By making their workers feel at home and pretending to appreciate them, a superior often tries to secure an employee’s place in their company or establishment, trying – once again – to gaslight them into forgetting any toxic behaviors and manipulative tendencies that may have previously taken place.
It is becoming increasingly clear that labour exploitation and manipulation at work can appear in many settings while taking numerous different forms, making the phenomenon all the more difficult to detect. Nonetheless, however difficult it may initially seem, there are things you can do in order to break the cycle and regain control when in a similar situation. The first step is to realize that while a manipulator at work might seem like someone dangerous, they are most likely more cowardly than what they seem; chances are, they cannot take what they dish out. Once you stop being fearful of them, they will almost immediately lose most of their power. That is because most manipulative characters are very dependent on other people; they gain power through fear, and once that fear disappears, their confidence and influence on others deflate greatly. After most of your fear has dissipated, it will be easier for you to muster up the courage to push back and search for ways out. It would be a clever and rational move to talk to coworkers you can trust about the situation. By doing so, you slowly gain emotional support and are no longer alone, but part of a group with the same needs and demands as you. However, remember to stay safe and select those you can trust carefully; situations like this often require gentle and methodical handling. Once you start reacting in a different manner, the manipulator might initially push back even harder. Take that as a good sign: the shift in their once-calculated strategies means they are panicking. Now is the time to stand your ground and remain firm while refusing to take the bait if they try to wind you up. Finally, always keep in mind that leaving is also an option: if your financial situation allows you to be unemployed until you find a new job, it may be for the best to take the leap and hand in your two weeks’ notice.
Unfortunately, labour exploitation cannot be characterized as a rare occurrence. By not respecting their employees’ basic needs and rarely hesitating to manipulate them in a variety of ways, people in higher positions reign in professional environments while spreading fear amongst their personnel. From a company’s founder and boss to a manager of a company’s branch, the people that will use their superiority in the workplace for their own benefit are not few. Thankfully, there is always a way out, even if it feels like your hands are tied; standing up for your rights and knowing when to leave a toxic and draining environment is truly one of the most important and self-respecting lessons one can learn in life.
- End Labour Exploitation: About. endlabourexploitation.co.uk. Available here
- 7 sign you are being exploited at work and what to do about it. limeade.com. Available here
- Master manipulator. listeningpartnership.com. Available here