Feet-Cleaning Fish: a Work-as-Payment Job Model
Imagine that you’ve hired an insatiable and indiscriminate glutton to dispose of your restaurant’s edible garbage. Understandably, you might ask yourself, “Why am I paying this guy—when I’m actually doing him a favor?”
From your perspective, his job is his reward; so, separate payment on top of that makes no sense. Generalizing from this example, it’s worth asking
1. How many real jobs are actually like that—needlessly compensated with cash and other perks when the task is the reward?
2. Whether it is possible for conventional employers to create and offer jobs structured on that model—namely, the “work-as-payment” model, thereby tremendously reducing one of the biggest employer operational expenses, salary/wages.
3. Which occupations or workers are the likeliest candidates for application of this model?
“Work-as-payment”—this was the epiphany I had while observing “fishu serapy” (“fish therapy”), a.k.a., “o-sakana esthe” (“honorable fish esthe”) in a Nagasaki, Japan spa tucked into a hillside tourist gantlet and funnel from which there is no escape before getting to the panoramic lookout and historical sites at the summit.
Another quirky import from elsewhere, “Dr. Fish”, as the fish are generically and affectionately called, are not quite a full-blown craze, but do have their niche in the Japanese health market.
Bred in and imported from Germany, the particular swarm of fish I observed feeding on whatever detritus they could find on the calves and feet of the first-timer shown in the photo dart at their targets in a “snatch-and-gobble” pattern, gently nibbling their way along their idea of a buffet, while symbiotically cleaning, stimulating, refreshing and tickling the gantlet weary clientele, despite their Pac-Man pack-of-piranha dining manners.
To me, that’s a work-as-payment arrangement, with the task being “intrinsically”, rather than “extrinsically” rewarding.
This means that the performance of the task is inherently rewarding, requiring no additional incentives or payoffs to induce the performer to undertake and complete the task. Extrinsic rewards, by contrast, are separate from the performance and dangled as inducements to perform the job.
This distinction frames the question asked above: Why pay anyone to do anything that they would be glad to do for free, simply because the doing is the rewarding?
Of course, although customers pay a minimum of about $5 for five minutes, the fish are not being paid separately, having neither use nor appendages for cash, checks or credit cards; but they do perfectly illustrate the phenomenon and the model of assigning jobs that are self-rewarding.
But here I anticipate an objection to the validity of this analysis: “Wait—the fish are not being rewarded by their task; they are being rewarded for the task, because their job has two parts: snagging and gulping.
Only the gulping is rewarding, and maybe only after it is completed. So, as workers, they are “employed” on the same basis as most of the rest of us: Do one thing, then get a reward for doing it.”
(Note: Some humans are paid in advance, on the basis of a model that cannot be replicated and applied with fish.)
However, this kind of partitioning of a job into a task and its reward does not apply universally—neither in the animal kingdom, nor in human jobs (as I shall illustrate below).
For example, I recall a textbook case of research with a jungle cat in a zoo (leopard, as I recall), which would not eat the dead raw birds fed it without first viciously clawing itself, like a human “cutter” (people who deliberately cut themselves).
Eventually, its keepers figured out that the pleasures, i.e., rewards, of feeding required a complex behavior sequence that included instinctive plucking as a behaviorally inseparable preliminary component.
That is to say, even when the “reward” was offered unconditionally, the cat would not accept it as separate from the task of plucking it, which was made unnecessary through human assistance.
Although we humans can conceptually distinguish that task from its appetitive rewards, the cat can’t—at least not motivationally.
Analogously, it can be argued that the fish may not be able to distinguish snatch from gulp, or gulp from the pleasurable sensations associated with gulping, instead performing both as a seamless whole.
I can’t prove that, but will allow for it. If you have trouble grasping this idea, just think of one of my favored , oft-cited illustrations from the history of work—Mozart, who, in general presumably could not distinguish the intrinsic pleasure of composing from the task of doing so, in addition to or instead of extrinsic rewards such as client commissions, salary and adoration of kings, countless countesses and buxom barmaids.
Long-gone Mozart aside, who—in the modern age—is a good candidate for a work-as-payment job offer? Despite its seeming unconventionality as a service concept, a work-as-payment arrangement is easily imagined for a number of professionals and job categories.
—Semi-retired or retired physician, mechanical engineer or NGO administrator who simply loves the idea of staying active in his field: This is very similar to the “dollar-a-year” expert, e.g., reportedly my very affluent Asian history professor during my first year of college, who taught because he loved it for its intrinsic rewards—or at least without regard for any real salary.
I expect that he would have done it for $0, but that contractual considerations (discussed below) required that he be compensated in some extrinsic way in order for the contract to be binding and valid.
—Gung-ho intern: Interns who, without regard for the extrinsic rewards of a foot into a permanent job with the company, strong references for some future job, a nice addition to the resume or meager salary, are happy to do the job just for the sheer enjoyment of it.
—Various apprentices: Some among artisans and other apprentices may fall into the same category, the difference being that they won’t have to wear a suit.
—(Wannabe) artists: Aspiring or established artists keen to have a venue for their art—especially when they define their mission and satisfaction as eliciting feelings and ideas as much as or more than expressing or exploring them—may jump at the chance to paint and display for a gallery, without regard to any prospective sale, e.g., in a permanent exhibition.
Given my definition of “art” as “anything you can’t sell if you call it anything else”, anyone engaging such a work-as-payment artist could help ensure that the task is its own reward by not calling the wall hangings “art”.
—Volunteers: Packaged without euphemisms, the concept of a volunteer is a perfect match for the fish-cleaning work-as-payment model. However, since even NGOs may have the volunteer cover at least part of personal expenses, whether a zero-payment model applies will depend on the specific assignment
On the other hand, local volunteering, e.g., with a homeless shelter, is an exact match—even if transportation is covered, since that’s a break-even consideration.
What is common to all of these examples, apart from work-as-payment, is that none of these is, in the strict sense, an employment arrangement—i.e., none of these staff would be employees, since an employee is defined as “someone who works for another in exchange for financial or other compensation”.
Of course, their efforts are compensated, but not contractually, i.e., extrinsically. Stated differently, the work-as-payment arrangement lacks the critical contractual element of “consideration“—some benefit enforceably provided by the other party or some detriment similarly removed.
Viewed from a legal perspective (for which you should consult a lawyer or other legal expert), the lack of such consideration is likely to make any work-as-payment agreement judged void by a court, and to fall in a category akin to “gift”—failure to deliver which is generally not sanctioned by law. (Disproportionately meager compensation is also likely not to be viewed as grounds for litigation, unless it is evidence of “unconscionability” or “bad faith”.)
So, if you decide to “hire” staff on a work-as-payment basis, you will probably have to offer some contractual consideration…
…even if only a voucher for five minutes of Dr. Fish.