Announcing: Putthithanasombat, Pramaha Min and John Walsh, “Management, Food Preparation and the Ethical Dimension at the Khao Kaewsadet Education Centre,” paper to be presented at the First International Conference of the Asia-Pacific Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics (APSAFE 2013) (Chulalongkorn University, November, 2013).
Within the canon of Buddhist scripture there are many passages dealing with workplace relations through describing appropriate means of structuring the employer-employee relationship. It has been written that employers should select the correct people for the work required to be done, should treat employees with decency and should reward employees with holidays and, for special occasions, with feast foods. These instructions are read with many other forms of ethical precepts concerning the ways in which interpersonal relationships should be managed and it is clear that there are responsibilities that each party should observe. However, it is apparent that there is an onus upon managers to establish appropriate workplace conditions and relationships so as to facilitate the desired response from employees: throughout history, the vast majority of workplace relationships have been abusive and exploitative and so it is not surprising that most employees show little if any loyalty to employers or to the organization involved. In Thailand, this has contributed to the culture of deference, based on fear, behind the traditions of the Land of Smiles. Food, in other words, is directly linked by Buddhist scripture with the proper establishment of organisational relations and the means of enabling employees to locate themselves within the hierarchy of which they are a part and, also, providing them with a means of determining their own standing and performance. The more often employees are rewarded with food, that is, taking into account the quality of that food, will enable those employees to understand something about their own performance and about the moral standing of their employers. This takes place, of course, within the context of a Buddhist cosmology.
One particular occasion on which this situation has been put into practice has been in the case of the Khao Khaewsadet Education Centre (KKEC), which is a centre for practicing and promoting Buddhist meditation that draws participants from around the world. The KKEC is located in Prachinburi province in Thailand. Participants travel to the centre for extended periods of time to study and practice meditation techniques and who require, therefore, board and lodging during their stay. Given the nature of the activities involved, it would be anticipated that the catering would tend towards the simple but healthy and wholesome and should have a degree of authenticity relating to the ingredients and methods most commonly used in the place of production. This should, of course, be balanced by the needs to provide food which is not too alien to travelers from far afield. To provide the catering, a mixed team of workers is employed on a semi-voluntary basis. The team numbers 48 in total and 22 are from Cambodia, 19 from Laos and the remaining seven from Myanmar. All are men, which is a result of the presence of the KKEC within a wat. Extensive qualitative interviewing of the workforce, in a combination of English and Thai with some recourse to interpreters, took place as part of a more extensive programme of research aimed at uncovering the connections between contemporary management practice and the lessons of Buddhist dhamma. Personal interviews and focus groups were accompanied by ethnographic observation as the principal investigator was a leading manager in the organization motivated by the desire to improve workplace relations and to increase the ethical component of management techniques. This should be understood in part, therefore, as an example of action research in addition to being exploratory research. The concept of employing mixed methods and mixed epistemologies is comparatively common in management studies, in which this study is located.
Results of the study to date, which is ongoing, indicate that there is an understandable tendency for workers to stick to their home countrymen during the initial period of their stay and this, combined with a measure of mutual incomprehensibility, represents the possibility for some interpersonal conflicts. This is, in itself, hardly surprising as there is a long history of interpersonal conflicts among cohorts of migrant workers, especially when they are predominantly or exclusively men. It is known that men in such situations who come from Mekong Region countries might seek to mitigate the boredom of their existence with such means as gambling, fighting, drinking alcohol and recreational sex which are antithetical to residence within an environment such as the KKEC. Instead, workers are integrated into the philosophical and religious environment of the place of work and, to some extent, it might be expected that most if not all of the workers involved were willing to be engaged with these religious and philosophical components or, at the very least, to be receptive to attempts to draw them into it. This has, in any case, been a focus for the management who have sought to use food and the occasions on which communal dining is involved to incorporate also religious elements. Such a process might combine meditation with a communal meal or short sermon might also be used. These are juxtaposed with favourite foods – papaya salad or som tum in various incarnations – which are not only enjoyable for everyone involved but also require collaboration for production. Since all the people involved are accustomed to the production of food for groups, cooperative food production represents a form of discourse which all people can share and learn from each other, even if they have little language ability or background knowledge. The cultural norms of food production in the Mekong Region transcend national and cultural borders.
Management of food production at the KKEC involve internal and external relationships as food is the principal means by which Centre participants are served and also the means by which employee relations are administered. From a Buddhist perspective, it would not be possible for these relationships to be managed successfully if the quality of the food itself and the means by which it has been harvested has been in any way compromised in the ethical context. Since each act has consequences for the production of merit and demerit (i.e. positive and negative karma) and those consequences are passed along the chain of cause and effect, only properly prepared agricultural inputs will be considered acceptable.