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June 27, 2022

The Aser Stories 072: Starve a Cold

By Sand Pilarski

If your main concern is profits and not the health of your hired help, the neighborhood shaman is probably not the most auspicious person to ask for assistance -- unless you want what is really coming to you.

So this burgher grabbed me by the sleeve of my robe in the market on Twosday morning, and shouted, "Shaman, you have to help me with my hired hands! They're sick, and they're not doing their jobs!"

Now the Winter Ill had been making its rounds in the village, and most households had someone who had fallen victim to it. Only a few died from the cough and fever; most of the cases did well if they were kept warm and allowed to rest. I'd been kept busy dispensing herbs that helped people with symptoms, so I knew what shape the Winter Ill took when it jumped from person to person and slithered into their throats. The burgher's household had been quite immune to the Ill -- no doubt because they were well fed and didn't mingle with the sneezing common folk.

"What are their jobs, Sir, that they are so ill they cannot perform them?" I asked him.

Sputtering with indignation, he sprayed the front of my robe with droplets. "My accountant, Shaman! He can't add the same day's total five times and come up with the same amount twice! And my receiving clerk doesn't know if we had five barrels of flour or four quarts of olives. Says he can't tell his 'V's from his 'U's on account of his sinuses burning and his eyes watering. And then there's the ox-boy who unloads carts for my shop. Yesterday I caught him talking to a crate of pink yard-goods like it was his lady-love, his arm about it and such. My headman had to kick him around the warehouse 'til the sprat remembered who he was working for."

"May I borrow your scarf, Sir?" I asked him most politely.

He unwound it from his thick neck and handed it to me. "Are you chilled, Shaman?"

I wiped down my outer robe with the scarf and handed it back to him. "No. So all of a sudden, when your staff is so sick they might die, now you're thinking you should have offered them medical benefits? Maybe you should have just paid them enough to eat well -- then they might not have fallen ill! Or perhaps you shouldn't have made each workday last from sunup to sundown so they weren't exhausted all the time, and thus were easy victims for the illness."

"I pay a competitive wage, Shaman, and every one of my employees knew what they hours would be when they accepted my coin. Don't be shoutin' outrage at me for normal business practices." He looked suspiciously at his returned scarf and stuffed most of it into his ample pockets.

"Competitive?" I asked him. "What the hell do you think that means?"

"It means I pay about what any other mercantile establishment pays," he said defensively. "And as I offer a variety of goods, I have to compete for market on all fronts -- that means I have to be able to offer my yardgoods at a lower price than the dressmaker, and my potatoes at less than at the farmers' market."

"Bullshit," I told him because I could see by his tailored trousers and brocaded vest with velvet buttons and the gold medallion around his neck that he was doing a hell of a lot better than the farmers and the dressmaker (and for that matter, the carpenters and the glass-blower.) "You're undercutting your neighbors in village shops to turn a larger profit, and you do so by selling inferior goods and working your employees like slaves."

He threw his hands up in the air as though I was a buffoon with a lame jest. "Why did I even think you were interested in the health of my employees?"

"Because you know that I am," I said to him, wishing that he also had the Winter Ill and various itchy and incurable diseases also, "but you must also know that what will help your workers the most is a few days off so that they can sleep and let their bodies heal themselves."

"Haw!" he said, finding the concept ludicrous. "A few days off and they'll not have so much as a slice of bread to eat! And they'll be looking for work long and hard, because I'll have had to hire replacements."

"I meant paid sick leave."

"I'm not paying wages to people lying around sick! What would be the sense of that?" Without thinking, he reached for the fat purse that dangled from the side of his belt and squeezed the thing, making intriguing little clinky noises.

I made a mental note that he had tied the purse on his left side, but said aloud, "You might end up with a healthier, and certainly more grateful work force, willing to work hard to keep you in business."

"Turning a strong profit is what keeps a man in business," said the burgher, "not gratitude and cupcakes on Mother's Day. Now what can you do to get my accountant back to his old self?"

"What symptoms you've described sound like the Ill has gone into high fever. I can help them somewhat, but they will still have to rest, wages or no. Otherwise, they could die." The truth of the matter was that they could die on the job, trying to earn a wage that took into no account their place in the world as living, thinking beings, or they could die from having no income and no way to sustain themselves through their illness.

There is no excuse for treating people as though they were expendable, biodegradable tools. None. Not for Lord Stonewall, should he throw his kerns heedlessly into battle, not for the dwarf gangs (the Fudds and the Thrips) who tell their members to die for any insult and to insult the opposition or die, not for employers who place monetary profit before all else.

The nature of people is that they are unique beings with incredibly complex personalities as precious as gems in a treasure chest, as essential to the life of a community as the many leaves of a tree are essential to the life of the root. Nothing about them should be treated too lightly. Their physical aspect is such that sometimes they fall ill, and they should not be punished for what comes naturally, unwelcome though that natural condition should be.

"I'm not going to pay them to lie around and cough," said the burgher. "And that's that."

"There is a magical spell," I said in a low voice. "But I hesitate to reveal it."

"What?" said the greedy, miserly son of ghouls, "Here's two gold pieces -- what's the spell?"

"Five, spells like this are at premium rates."

He fumbled out the gold coins. "Here, five."

"You must visit each afflicted one on their job, shake their hands, and then after you are out of their sight, kiss your hand and say, 'Profit above all.' Then the Wisdom of the Ancients will be revealed to you and if you can hear what they had to say, you will be enlightened and become a greater merchant than ever."

"A greater merchant than ever?" he said delightedly, forgetting all about his sick and suffering employees. "Most excellent, Shaman! Here's your gold! 'Profit above all,' what a great incantation!"

He trundled off, singing a song about crowns and drawbridges and swords, filled with renewed optimism and glee. I was sure that he would implement the "magical spell" at his earliest convenience, and I was glad to have told him of it. Seemed to me that if the burgher wanted miserable workers, he could at least share their misery.

Unethical? Well, yes. As unethical as my tip to Dorman Cutpurse at the inn was on Twosday night about how a certain burgher flaunted his heavy clinking sack of coin on his left ham. My fifty percent cut will feed some folks who are losing wages because they are too sick to work.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-02-16
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