Job Initiation Rites Can Turn Ugly, Fatal
In an alleyway outside a small London print shop recently, a new employee was stripped by his fellow workers, tied to a chair, daubed with ink, flour and discarded food, and left out in the cold for two hours. Even seasoned printers felt that was going a little too far.
Such initiation ceremonies remain common in many jobs in Britain, despite growing disapproval by managers and trade unions, and the evidence that they can go tragically wrong came in Liverpool Crown Court in December when two teen-agers were jailed for manslaughter.
They had doused a colleague’s trousers with paint thinners, a regular initiation ceremony in the Skelmersdale factory where they worked. But they had also struck matches to frighten him and he caught fire and suffered fatal burns over 80% of his body.
In other cases that have attracted recent headlines, trainee firemen in London were hosed with cold water and left standing in the street in nightshirts, a young policewoman in Manchester was left handcuffed to railings through a freezing night, and Army recruits were forced to call out musical notes as a sergeant hit them on their naked buttocks with a baseball bat.
Although there has been some success in attempts to halt such ceremonies, or at least to make them less dangerous or humiliating, there also is evidence that they are a perennial aspect of group behavior that is unlikely to be eradicated.
Allen Abramson, a London University anthropologist who has studied initiation rituals, said that most societies used them to mark important developments in a person’s life, and that they often involved pain or deprivation.
“Wherever you find a group within society which feels that what it’s doing is seriously different from everyone else, then you’re likely to find initiation rites,” he said. “That’s why they’re common in the fire service and the Army, where people are doing something out of the ordinary and taking greater risks than others.
“It also happens in public schools, where new arrivals are considered ordinary weaklings until they’ve been pushed out to survive some sort of ordeal so they can re-enter the group with a new identity.”
Early last year the Ministry of Defense announced new measures to discourage bullying after young recruits disclosed that they had been pushed into rivers and pelted with stones.
Commanding officers were asked to crack down on harmful initiation ceremonies, and a scheme was started to install “agony aunts” from the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service so that young soldiers being bullied could get a sympathetic hearing.
A defense ministry spokeswoman said that 92 “agony aunt” posts had been established in Britain and Germany, and 24 filled. “Ill treatment and bullying are being tackled with a range of measures including better training for junior officers,” she said.
“Harmful initiation rights are definitely out, but non-harmful ones would be OK. It would be up to officers to decide what was dangerous and whether to discourage it. But it might just take the form of going to the bar to buy drinks for everyone, as a way of belonging to the club.”
The Fire Service cracked down on initiation rituals after a young woman firefighter in London said her colleagues had tied her to a ladder, hosed her down, poured urine over her, used foul language and exposed themselves to her. Four officers had pay stopped, and London’s fire chief fire said it should be possible to engender group spirit without “the denigration and ridicule of individuals.”
Dave Higgs, a spokesman for the Fire Brigades Union, said that initiation rites are “not widespread at all. We don’t condone them in any way, especially if they have racist or sexist aspects.
“I would like to think that any sort of physical abuse doesn’t go on anymore, but this does not mean that people might not get a bucket of water over them sometimes.”
Printers, traditionally an exclusive “closed shop” of workers, say that initiation ceremonies for apprentices are less common now than 20 or 30 years ago. Rituals often involved the daubing of men’s private parts with indelible inks or waste paper and glue.
A spokeswoman for the print union Sogat said she is happy to say such practices are on the way out. “Some could be quite nasty, with people being tied up with ink chucked at them. We wouldn’t encourage anything which was risky, and some were a bit near the mark.”
Abramson said he thought that if management or officers tried to suppress or control initiation rites, the rank and file would usually devise new ones of their own: “There’d be the official ceremony, then the men would take the new person off and say, now we’re going to really initiate you.”
One apprentice print worker who was daubed and paraded on a trolley around Croydon in Surrey 25 years ago said: “The worst thing was if they didn’t do anything to you at all--it showed you weren’t wanted.”