What was it like to work in world’s most powerful company — East India Company ?

Fascinating article by Amanda Ruggeri in bbc.com. 

Given how much power East India Company had and enjoyed, how does it compare with today’s large companies?

Interestingly, it was a company which most wanted to be working in:

Like many multinationals today, the East India Company wasn’t just one of the world’s most powerful corporations – it was also one of the most coveted to work for.

Competition to work at the East India Company was fierce. Most people, of course, were out of the running from the start: “It was overwhelmingly white males – and no women, apart from housekeepers,” says Margaret Makepeace, lead curator of the British Library’s East India Company Records.

Getting a foot in the door was all about who you knew. Even for manual labour jobs in the warehouses you needed a nomination from one of the company directors. (There were 24 directors, chosen from a pool who had at least £2,000 in company stock, elected annually). “Applications for admission always greatly exceeded the number of vacancies. Unsolicited petitions to the Court of Directors were routinely rejected,” writes Makepeace in her book The East India Company’s London Workers.

If you wanted to be a clerk, or ‘writer’, at the headquarters in London you would also have to be nominated. Again, who you knew was paramount: “Success was ultimately dependent upon connection and influence rather than the possession of any skills and aptitude for the post,” writes Huw Bowen in his book Business of Empire.

It discusses about unpaid internships, training modules, headquarter design, free meals, open bars, employee perks and salaries.

This bit on work life balance is interesting:

Netflix, Virgin Group, Twitter, GE and Glassdoor all have unlimited time off (though this doesn’t always translate to employees actually taking the time they need).

Had they travelled back in time to the East India Company, those same workers wouldn’t have found quite the same treatment. Annual leave didn’t exist in the Company’s early years: a clerk’s time off, generally for something like a personal journey, needed to be approved by the Court of Directors. In the earlier years of the Company, this was mitigated by the fact that there were more public holidays than today.

But in 1817, those were cut, leaving only Christmas Day. In response to complaints, the Committee then allowed set leave for employees – four days annually for those who had worked for 50 years, down to one day for those who worked for at least 18 years – “which I think very liberal,” lifelong employee Charles Lamb wrote.

Workers were expected to put in the hours, too. In the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, company clerks had to be in the headquarters from 7am to 8pm, with a two-hour lunch. They also worked on Saturdays.

But supervision of these hours wasn’t always the strictest. In May 1727, the Court of Directors saw the case of warehouse porter John Smith, who had been absent without leave since January 1726, an impressive 16-month absence. (This 18th-Century Ferris Bueller was promptly let go).

Pretty much EIC could have competed with today’s best:

From requiring bonds for good behaviour to its all-male workforce, there are significant ways in which the British East India Company differed from a modern multinational. Its ability to exploit global markets using not only economic and political, but military force marks the corporation irrevocably as a product of its time.

But whether enjoying a swanky headquarters, taking on unpaid internships or dreaming of retirement, 21st-Century employees have more in common with 18th- or 19th-Century office workers than they might think.

Nice bit. We hardly look at these aspects of a company especially likes of EIC. It will be interesting to read how English EIC differed from other East INdia Companies (Dutch, French etc) as well..


4 Responses to “What was it like to work in world’s most powerful company — East India Company ?”

  1. Daily SG: 1 Jun 2016 – The Singapore Daily Says:

    […] – Musings From the Lion City: The “Correct” Decision – Mostly Economics: What was it like to work in world’s most powerful company — East India Company ? – guanyinmiao’s musings: Philip E. Tetlock And Dan Gardner’s “Superforecasting: The […]

  2. aaaaa Says:

    Labour laws & company regulations appear exploitative & draconian in those early years, but compared to working as a farmhand or odd job labourer or even in other smaller companies, life as a British East India Company worker was considered heaven even with 6-day workweek, 1 day annual leave, zero paid sick leave. 6-full-day workweek was the norm for many thousands of years. Many up till the early-20th century worked 6 1/2 days a week, with no annual leave. The only breaks were official national public holidays or religious holidays. Moreover, the salary in BEIC beats hands-down most other companies.

    BTW, £2000 of company stock seems trivial — but don’t forget this is 18th/19th century pound, not 2016 pound. The pound, and almost all other major currencies, were destroyed as a precious-metal-based currency during the 1st-half of the 20th century. An 18th century £1 would be equivalent of about 2016 £200. Therefore to stand a chance of being voted directorship in BEIC, you’d need £400,000 of company stock to even begin with.

    As for other EIC of other countries, most were even worse than the British one, with even more corruption. They all went bankrupt or nationalised earlier than BEIC.

    The uniqueness of BEIC (and others like it) was that it was given official powers by the country to practically represent that country in overseas matters, to have its own army & navy, to wage war against certain countries & peoples (usually less developed ones), and to conquer & claim territory on behalf of the home country. No other “corporation” before or since has such leeway & powers. Not even Blackwater security corp which provided mercenaries.

    BTW, Singapore, Penang & Malacca were claimed for the British Crown by the BEIC during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

  3. Oleg Komlik Says:

    On this topic please see also this post on Emily Erikson’s book “Between Monopoly and Free Trade: The English East India Company, 1600–1757”. Why the East India Company became the most powerful business‬ in history? Because it granted its employees the right to pursue their own commercial interests

  4. Amol Agrawal Says:

    Thanks Oleg again for this. Keep the wonderful blogging going.

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