COLIN BAKER says Look Who's Talking

A COMPANY with which I have connections had employee problems lately.

A member of staff was threatening legal action because, she claimed, the office in which she was working was suffering from a malady unknown to me before and called "sick building syndrome".

This affliction of the bricks and mortar meant that soon after arriving at work each day she felt ill at ease, uncomfortable, had headaches and feelings of nausea.

(Not uncommon to many of the working population, particularly on a Monday morning, I would suggest.)

These unpleasant sensations decreased the longer and further she was away from her place of work. This phenomenon, lucrative to the lawyers of the afflicted, is another wondrous import from that beacon of civilisation across the Atlantic, where four per cent of the world's population produce 25 per cent of the world's pollutants and whose President apparently wishes to make his mark as the first true global vandal of the 21st century by declining to join the rest of the world in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

However, back to our reluctant worker.

The employee's attempts to gain financial recompense for this environmental malady were thwarted only by a timely move of the company concerned to a new building. The woman subsequently left.

The shift in the balance of power between employer and employee was highlighted for me when I came across a document, dated 1852 and entitled Office Staff Practices, found in a recently demolished building in Staffordshire.

It starts off by announcing "clerical staff will now only have to be present from 7am to 6pm on weekdays". It then lays down terms of employment that would give the modern worker pause for thought.

"A stove is provided for the benefit of clerical staff. It is recommended that each employee brings in four pounds of coal each day, during cold weather.

"Clothing must be of a sober nature. Overshoes and topcoats may not be worn in the office but neck scarves and headwear may be worn in inclement weather.

"No member of clerical staff may leave the room without permission from Mr Rogers.

"Calls of nature are permitted and staff may use the garden below the second gate. This area must be kept in good order.

"No talking is allowed during business hours. The craving of tobacco and alcohol is a human weakness and is forbidden to all staff.

"Now that the hours of business have been drastically reduced, the partaking of food is allowed between the hours of 11.30 and noon, but work will not, on any account, cease.

"Members of staff will provide their own pens. A sharpener is available on application to Mr Rogers.

"Brushes, brooms, scrubbers and soap are provided by the owners, who expect a rise in the output of work as a result of these near utopian conditions."

I would love to have been able to share the opinion of Mr Rogers and his unnamed employers had one of their clerks requested recompense because the building in which he was working left him feeling debilitated and unwell.

I suspect he would not have to worry any more about the state of the garden below the second gate.

We don't know we're born do we?