Volume 19

To Serve and Inspect: The Tragedy of Employee Well-being in the Age of Foucault's Discipline

by Kendy Hess

A fundamental task of the government is to “secure generally the comfort, safety, morals, health, and prosperity of its citizens . . . by insuring to each an uninterrupted enjoyment of all the privileges conferred upon him or her by the general laws.” This authority is commonly known as the police power. Sometimes the government regulates its citizens directly in pursuit of these goals, but here I explore the implications of a different technique. It is becoming increasingly common for the government to impose the responsibility inherent in the police power on business enterprises, making firms legally liable for the health and well-being of their employees. I suggest here that implementing such regulations, in which one entity (the firm) is made liable for the well-being of another (the employee) initiates an unfortunate progression. After introducing Foucault’s panoptic theory of discipline, I draw on developments in health and safety regulation and workplace climate regulation to suggest that we should heed the warning inherent in Foucault’s work. When the government makes one entity liable for the well-being of another it introduces a dangerous logic into workplace management, leading to the near-inevitable exposure and exploitation of the very people the government was trying to protect.

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