Whistle-Blowing – You Said?

Recent events in our country force many of us to ask: of what purpose is a lot of theory for flushing out miscreants and corruption in all walks of our society, if professionals and other workers gang up together to protect a crooked co-worker, colleague, higher officials or authorities? How and when will we have more transparency in our dealings if there are opaque walls between the people and the administrators?

On one side we have the administration, which wants to manage the affairs of the country with a minimum of revolt and frustration; it wants its employees to be faithful and loyal, and not to betray its weak points to the media. On the other hand is the population which wants to know the underside and weaknesses of all transactions of the administration so as to remain alert to corruption practices that undermine our country. The modern Greek tragedy is still green in our memory.

In some quarters there is a belief that there must be some strategy for whistle-blowers everywhere, who will act as safeguards of all human enterprises, public or private. We Mauritians would be surprised to learn that in many countries there are official and well-established rules for workers to indulge in whistle-blowing. The idea is for anyone to report on any misdeed or corruptible practices being carried out by any other employee to the detriment of the enterprise or society. This presupposes, maybe rightly, that corruption is occult and always ready to raise its head. Therefore, as we are in a democracy, constant vigilance is imperative to keep it in check.

Of course when people go to work everyday they feel that they are joining other friends and colleagues in all trust to carry out their duty; but if they should have the feeling that there is a spy among them at work they may feel suspicious and uncomfortable, which is not conducive to a healthy working environment. But if education and society have trained them well to work diligently and honestly for the welfare of the country, then there should be no fear of retribution.

No doubt, there would be some rare individuals who will come up and raise the voice against some injustice, some irrational practices or abuse of power by some higher officials in their department. They are severely taken to task, or referred to disciplinary committees for action. Such individuals suffer ostracism and are denied promotion; and sometimes they have recourse to early retirement in order to avoid perpetual persecution. They are the few brave ones. But all employees feel that, in the absence of a legal framework to protect a whistle-blower, it is a waste of time to fight the administration: if you complain you are harassed; if you don’t protest you get your monthly pay and a peaceful sleep, so why protest?

Think of our ministerial cabinet. If there were no Official Secrets Act to prevent diffusion of all decisions taken therein, then we would know of the Finance minister’s plan in advance of a budget, and that would play havoc on the market. Reporting on such plan would do harm to the country, hence the raison d’être of an Official Secrets Act. Whistle-blowing at that level of administration may not be tolerated. But could anyone be above the law? Let’s not forget the famous whistle-blower ‘Deep Throat’ of the 1970s — the top level CIA agent who leaked information to two journalists of the Washington Post about what became the Watergate scandal and which finally toppled Richard Nixon, then the most powerful political man on earth. May be whistle-blowing must be initiated for more concrete, direct, provable acts of misconduct or corruption. It is generally the juniors who have recourse to that strategy for reporting the seniors to still higher authorities.

Accompanied by all his administrative staff, one minister used to meet all heads of units of each institution under his care. The latter were happy to attend such meetings –because they could air their grievances; the problems were analysed and solutions were offered. For most of us this was an open form of mild whistle- blowing, offering a platform to expose our frustrations in the face of red tape. But most administrators were not happy with that monthly arrangement, because suddenly they had their underbelly exposed and were perpetually under pressure to find solutions to interminable problems, while employees were satisfied. It did provide some 5 to 10% progress or prevented deterioration of existing conditions; and, at least, during such meetings the place of work was kept cleaner than usual. Ultimately it points to the failure of most workers to perform efficiently, a sort of ‘laisser aller’ mentality; this became more evident after those monthly meetings were cancelled.

The recent annual Audit Report speaks volumes. We Mauritians were not surprised by its content, for the simple reason that it is a repetition of past years’ findings. We would have thought that there would be concern on all sides to restrict waste, but that is not so. For decades no one has found a solution to such poor performance. How to prevent such inefficiency? Will whistle-blowing keeps one and all – employees and administrators — on the ‘qui vive’ and alert to their duty and responsibility? Will it spur us to better sense?

In the UK

”Blowing the whistle is more formally known as ‘making a disclosure in the public interest’ so it is important you can do so knowing that you are protected from losing your job and/or being victimized as a result of what you have uncovered and made public.”

A worker is protected if he reveals “information of the right type – by making a ‘qualifying disclosure’, and reveals it to the right person, and in the right way – making it a ‘protected disclosure’. However, such procedure is legal only if it exposes something in the public interest, not for personal gain. Past or present irregularities could be revealed; and even if it is thought that it may happen in the future the worker could denounce it to the right person, as defined by law.” He can report a department or a company on criminal offences, failure to comply with a legal obligation, miscarriages of justice, or threats to people’s health and safety at the site of work, or does not provide the right insurance cover. A worker can report only to the prescribed person or body if he thinks his employer would treat him unfairly, or the latter had failed to take action after a complaint.

Should someone be victimized after whistle-blowing, he can apply to the Employment Tribunal for redress; however, anonymous whistle-blowing tactic will weaken his case.

A British employee has to check his employment contract or human resources to see whether there is a whistle-blowing procedure, or if brave enough, can contact his employer before embarking on a complaint. However, should he have signed the Official Secrets Act in his contract of work, then he better think twice before indulging in whistle-blowing.

Famous whistle-blower, besides the ‘Deep throat’, is Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame, who revealed to the world the cynical, browbeating attitude of the USA in diplomatic reporting on other nations. Similarly Edward Snowdon, ex-CIA agent, revealed some electronic secrets of the National Security Agency of USA. All exposed how powerful governments are treating smaller nations in a cavalier fashion with arrogance, colonial attitude and distrust.

There must be a strong reason why some advanced nations have legalized whistle-blowing. Countries with high per capita can afford to, while the poorer nations are struggling. With people cutting a lot of corners to survive, will whistle-blowing help them? However, all of us are also aware of the double-edged knife it could be; anyone of us employees could fall prey to it some day or the other. And the trade unions may not like it or will be satisfied to sit on the fence. But to improve our annual Audit findings and stop wastage, to put a brake to rising corruption, and toil for the common good of the people: what other choice is left to us ? Could our people opt to legalize whistle- blowing, knowing quite well that it is a potential Damocles’ sword on the head of any employer and employee? By what magic are we going to make an omelet without breaking an egg?

  • Published in print edition on 11 September 2015

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