In the 19th century, Master and Servant Acts were passed to regulate relations between employers and employees. In 1823, an important Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom aimed to regulate servants, laborers, and workers, and provided sanctions of up to three months imprisonment for misdemeanor. With the preponderance of English common law across the British Empire, the act shaped industrial relations and employment in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. In time, bent as they were on disciplining employees and repressing trade unions, Master and Servant Acts came to be regarded as heavily biased towards employers and were repealed. Today, “master and servant” is deemed an archaic, generic legal phrase. And yet, hierarchical relationships still lie at the heart of working relations: master-servant relationships are not just a feature of employment; rather, they define it.
On one side are employers with managers as their agents, who unlike servants, can act on the employer’s behalf; on the other are employees, the subordinates of anointed, well-paid, agents. The whole time, money and its resultant power stoke the fire of commerce. The fact that personnel engagement correlates closely with individual, collective, and corporate performance needs no confirmation. Since remunerated work occupies so much of our lives, how might better appreciation of the pitfalls of money and power break the bonds of servitude to inspire more convivial approaches that truly modernize the workplace?