The Thin End Of The Wedge


The Thin End Of The Wedge Essay, Research Paper

The thin end of the wedgeThe Frenchgate shopping centre could be anywhere in England. There’s a Superdrug, a Carphone Warehouse, places selling sportswear. But this isn’t just anywhere. This is Doncaster, a town that, like many others in this part of Yorkshire, has always had a strong sense of identity. Or used to, until the pits closed. On first glance, not a lot has changed. Maybe there weren’t so many bargain basement shops in the early 1980s. Maybe the concrete of the shopping centre and the multi-storey didn’t seem quite so forbidding. But on the outskirts of town are boarded-up shops that would once have done a good trade. On the other hand, there are shiny new metal sculptures in the pedestrianised part of the high street. Essentially, though, it’s still the same place, its heart hemmed in by dual carriageways, its fringes a sprawl of council houses and privately owned semis. I’m pretty sure that life on the minimum wage here will be easier than in London. The rent will be lower, for a start. I’m expecting to meet different people, too. The population is mainly white and indigenous, so I expect my new workmates to have grown up here, to have support networks of families and friends. I cast my eye over the Doncaster Free Press, but the jobs pages look a bit thin. There aren’t many positions for people without skills. The only two I can see aren’t local at all – they’re in a more prosperous market town 30 miles away. I ring the first, which turns out to be packing tomatoes in a salad plant. They have just one question: do I have my own transport? I don’t; the minimum wage has just gone up from £3.70 an hour to £4.10, but I doubt it would support a car. The second ad looks more hopeful: “Temps R Us are recruiting FULL TIME WORKERS for a Multinational Sauce Manufacturer. We offer subsidised transport, cheap factory shop, free work clothing. £4.30/hr + O/T. £175-£185/week. Phone for local interview.” I phone. Again, there’s just one question: what’s my address? If I’m to get picked up by the factory minibus, I’ll have to live on the right side of town. I’ll phone back, I say. I scan the paper again. There are a few flats for around £70 a week, but the only place that will do is a caravan site that offers accommodation for £40 a week. I head out of the mall, navigate the dual carriageway and brace myself for a grey, windy walk across the river bridge. There, behind a pub whose pebbledash is stained by traffic fumes, is the grandly named River View Welcome Home Park. It turns out to be four dingy rows of caravans, flanked by a major road and two railway lines. The view of the river, if ever there was one, is obscured by the hulking frame of a new flyover under construction 20 yards away. I meet Bert, the warden, a stout, cheerful fiftysomething with a rolling gait, clad in creased trousers and rolled-up shirtsleeves. As he opens the door of the vacant “van”, I’m hit by the all-pervasive odour of damp. I’m told later that the river makes its presence known from time to time when it floods out the Welcome Home residents. Still, there’s a separate living room and bedroom, and I’ll have my own kitchen and bathroom. Despite the smell, it looks clean enough. Someone’s made a recent effort to brighten the place up, painting the dado rail in the living room pink and pairing striped wallpaper below it with flowery above. There’s a red Dralon sofa and a little fleur-de-lys pattern on the red carpet. Bert assures me that it’s quite safe here – there are half a dozen single women living on the site and everyone looks out for each other. Bert helps me move my stuff in. I put my few books and portable telly on top of the veneered shelf unit in the lounge; apart from that the only furniture here is the sofa and a matching pouffe. The bedroom has two white MDF wardrobes, but only one is usable; the other collapses sideways if I open the door, and the flood has left an unspeakable black sludge in its base. Once I’ve unpacked, the place looks reasonably homely. Next door to me is Susie. She lives with her elderly mum and five or six fluffy white dogs, each of which sports a little pink bow in its hair. She’s been here a long time, she says, and it suits her fine. Her van has its own little garden with a cherry tree and a clematis climbing along the fence. Susie says it’s a close-knit community where not much happens without someone noticing. When I call round to introduce myself, she already knows my name. Susie is the kind of neighbour who makes a point of popping round to let you know it’s bin day tomorrow, or to make sure you’re settling in all right. There are about 80 “vans” in all, and some have exotic names like “Dominica” or “Rio Vista III”. Mine is the basic model, however, and has “Mk II Tyne” stamped on the front. I phone Temps R Us again, with my address. They confirm I can start at Bramwells Sauces on Monday. There’s no need for an interview. The basic pay is minimum wage an hour, plus 20p extra per hour if I turn up regularly and on time. I’ll work a week in hand and will be paid for 41 hours a week, including five hours’ overtime at a higher rate. I should earn about £180 a week before tax. I’ll be picked up by the Shell garage up the road from the caravan site. The driver’s name will be Colin. A few days later, I’m standing on the dual carriageway out of town, scanning the traffic. The battered red minibus is half full when it stops to pick me up at five to one, but by the time it reaches its destination, almost all the places are occupied. I expected most of the workers to be women, but I was wrong. About half are lanky lads aged between 16 and 20, with spots, short, slicked-down hair and tracksuit bottoms. The rest are an even mix of women, aged between 16 and 50, and older men. At about 1.45pm we pull into a car park in front of the series of grey sheds with brightly coloured trim that is Bramwells. Within seconds, everyone has piled out, rushed into a hut by the car park, changed their everyday shoes for workboots and galumphed off again, leaving me alone with a plump bloke in his late 30s who tells me his name is Ken. This is his company, he says, and in a minute Colin, who drove the minibus, will be along to give me my training and show me around. It’s several weeks before I realise that Ken isn’t the owner of Bramwells, but of Temps R Us, or possibly of the branch of Temps R Us that seems to run Bramwells’ personnel office. I won’t be working for Bramwells, he explains. For some purposes I’ll be self-employed; for others I’ll be employed by Temps R Us. Anyway, I don’t need to bother myself with the details, because they’ll all be sorted out. He sits me down to watch a series of safety videos and asks me to complete a health and safety comprehension test before declaring me “capable of higher mental processes”. I also get a pair of steel toecapped boots, for which £15 will be deducted from my wages. According to my information, the law says employers should provide such safety equipment free of charge. Then again, I’m not an employee. Or am I? I never really get to the bottom of this issue, or find out how being an agency worker affects my rights. I do discover, though, that there are little fleets of minibuses ferrying agency workers all over the area, from the old industrial towns where unemployment is high to the more prosperous towns where there are labour shortages. Whatever the legalities, factories around here seem to find such casual labour a useful way of keeping their labour forces flexible. Inside, the cavernous shed-like factory is like a cheerful vision of hell. Hulking cauldrons hug their loads of sauces, pickles and ketchups. Bottles jostle as they inch into coolers the size of single-decker buses. Huge clouds of steam rise up, denoting unseen processes: filling, labelling, shrink-wrapping. Everywhere is stainless steel. There’s a chest-stopping mix of sauce and pickle in the air. The activity is frenetic. Colin leaves me in the care of Lara, a pale girl of about 20 with a huge lovebite on her neck. She’s only been here a week or so herself. She didn’t used to work, but her fiance left her a few weeks ago and she has £70 a week rent to pay on a two-bedroom house with a leaky roof. She couldn’t understand it, she says. She did everything, all the cooking, cleaning, shopping. Men, she says. Treat ‘em mean and they’re soppy as hell. Do the right thing and they bugger off without so much as a “thank you”. I say, well, with your own place the world’s your oyster. “Yeah,” she says, a bit too brightly. Tonight, we’re at the “stacking end”, packing up trays of sausage casserole sauce. Mostly, we’re stacking jars on to pallets, or checking for rejects with bad labels or not enough sauce in. Every half an hour or so, we swap around, so even the most boring or arduous job isn’t too wearing. But we have only two 20-minute breaks during the nine-hour shift, which finishes at 11pm, and they aren’t enough – just time for a quick cup of machine tea, which leaves us thirsty. We’re not paid for breaks, of course. During one of these breaks, I sit down with Michael. He’s in his early 20s, sharp-eyed and dry. I ask why there is such a vast range of different hat colours and uniformswhat does it all mean? He explains. Women have floppy caps, men have plain ones. Drones wear white caps – all the same for men, but pleated for permanent women, elasticated for agency. Quality controllers have green hats, coordinators – one down from supervisors – have blue hats and supervisors have red hats. Fitters have purple overalls and purple hats, forklift drivers have green overalls and green hats. Only the shift managers have hard hats – because “their brains are more valuable than ours”. Everyone wears the same foam earplugs – except the shift managers, who wear big, industrial-strength headphones. I say that it looks as if the forklift drivers have the most fun – they swerve gracefully around the factory like ice-dancers on their little green machines and have loud hooters to blow if anyone gets in their way. Michael agrees: “You know how some people dream they can fly? Sometimes, I dream I can drive a forklift.” When the bus draws up on my second day, there’s no sign of Lara. The next day, however, she’s back, with a fresh lovebite overlapping the first. She tells me she had to have a day off because her ex-fiance came round at two in the morning to find out who was in her bed. He’s much older than her, she says. He has grown-up kids almost her age. I say, well, maybe he was worried about the lovebites. Oh no, she says, it’s her ex-fiance who gives her the lovebites. We spend most of my first week in a department called “retort”. I ask one of the old hands, Vera, what this means and she says she hasn’t a clue. What she does know, however, is that one of the major supermarkets had this extension built on to the main shed so that we could make extra-specially creamy sauces. They come down a long chute from the main factory, from precisely where I never find out, and are then packed into an enormous oven, and when they come out again they’re cooled, washed, wiped (by us), labelled, packed (us again), shrink-wrapped and stacked. (This is the worst job, because the wrapping is still hot and sticky when you lift the cartons, and it burns your hands if you’re not quick about it.) There are packing labels for each carton, which in some parts of the factory are put on by machine but which here must be put on by someone standing next to the shrink-wrapping machine: slap, slap, slap. Towards the end of the week, I’m sent to pickles for the day. There seems to be some sort of problem, and they’re short-staffed. When I get there, I can see immediately what’s wrong – there’s been a pickled cabbage explosion of gigantic proportions. There are piles of red cabbage everywhere. The production line can barely be seen for glistening, steaming mess and purple ooze. Every ledge and cranny on the elaborately laid out filling machinery is concealed by the stuff. Someone gives me a rubber broom and a shovel, and I set to work alongside all the others to clean up. Once the shovelling is done, the hosepipes appear. Surprisingly quickly, the place is beginning to look itself again. I’m helping Jane, the coordinator, who tells me she’s been working here for 15 years: “I left once, but I was so bored I came back after a few weeks.” I ask what went wrong with the last batch of pickle. She looks at me strangely. “Oh, nothing. It just gets like that when you’re doing cabbage.” As it turns out, beetroot isn’t much better. By the end of the night, the place looks as if it’s been witness to a bloodbath. I have several jobs during the day – the most mind-numbing, and the messiest, involves sitting on a stool by the production line as 300 open jars of beetroot hustle past every minute, poking my fingers into each one to ensure that the “product” isn’t poking over the top when the lid goes on. I’m allowed rubber gloves – I need two, of course, because I must use both hands and still perform two or three well-aimed jabs per second to keep up with the line. But this doesn’t protect the rest of me from the waves of beetroot and vinegar that fly out of the jars and off the sides of the line, landing like little bursts of hail in my lap. From time to time, I brush it off, but to little effect. Soon, I’m covered in purple blotches, like everyone else. There’s nothing humourless about the workers here. It’s a bit like that Victoria Wood sitcom, Dinner Ladies, with added F-words. It’s not unusual to hear one stout fiftysomething remark to another, as they embark on their third pallet, “Ee, Vera, I’m fucked.” Julie and her friend Sharon started the same day as me, and they’ve barely got their feet under the production line before they’re swearing at the other workers. Nothing stops Julie working. During our second week, she strains her shoulder stacking cartons and within a day or two it’s so inflamed that you can see the lump through her overalls. The factory nurse sends her to hospital for a check-up, where she’s told to rest. And does she? No. She’s back on the production line within an hour, and though the supervisor puts her on labelling to prevent her making it worse, she’s still rigid with pain. She really, really wants to hold on to this job, she says. If she takes time off, she will lose pay. What worries her even more is that Temps R Us will think she’s a slacker and then she’ll be sacked. Colin, the shift manager who doubles up as the minibus driver, is concerned enough to come round several times over the next couple of days to see if Julie is OK. She isn’t, of course, but she always says she is. For many of the workers, certainly the unattached ones, life seems to consist of five days at the factory and four nights on the piss, with the occasional footie match on the telly thrown in. On Friday afternoon, the volume on the bus radio is pumped up. Everyone’s planning the night ahead, talking about where they’ll go, who they’ll meet, what they’ll drink. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights are definite drinking nights. Monday is a little more doubtful. It depends on how much cash there is left. Furtively, little plastic bags of cash are pulled from pockets on the journey home. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday tend to be quieter nights, of necessity. Hangovers are regarded as a sort of occupational hazard. I talk to Dave, who gets on the bus in a former pit village. I’m shocked to find we’re the same age, because he’s had so many reincarnations that I’d assumed he was a young-looking late fortysomething. Dave left school at 16 and did what most young lads in the area used to do back then: he went down the pit. It provided a good living and, so far as he knew, a job for life. He got married, survived a year on strike, got divorced and remarried, then agreed to take redundancy because he was told it would save the pit. A year later the pit closed anyway, and the people who’d stayed on got an extra £7,000 redundancy. I suppose Dave is typical of many people round here. After the pit closed, his second marriage broke up. He worked in another pit for a bit, then in Germany, trying to find a way of matching the £30,000 salary he’d lost. He’s had the compo, of course. About £28,000 – nearly a year’s salary after giving up 15 years of his life, along with the health of several of his body parts. He’s got vibration white finger (£8,000), industrial deafness (£2,000) and asthma – he hasn’t had anything for that. He seems to have learned to take what life throws at him. He’s back living with his mum, in her council house which he’s bought on a small mortgage. That’s only recent, though – he was living with a girlfriend until a few weeks ago, someone much posher than him. “She wanted to take me round to all these parties with her mates. I just felt like a piece of meat.” At the moment, he seems to be wondering which way to go next. He’s done agency work in a few factories. He’s got a bit of money, so he can get a woman when he wants one and sleep alone when he wants, he says. If he wants a day off, he can always take one – unpaid, of course. He goes to the pub when he chooses – cash permitting – and goes home when he chooses. Just occasionally, however, the sense of what he’s lost creeps through. One day, I’m packing salad cream into boxes with Duncan on my right and Dave on my left. We’re taking it in turns to sing songs to pass the time. I lead the way in a rendition of the Muppets’ theme tune. Dave laughs and says to Dunc: “It didn’t take long to turn her into a muppet, did it?” I say I’m not sure I want to be a muppet. Dave’s smile fades as he pauses for a moment, deciding whether to explain. “Fran,” he says eventually, “all agency workers are muppets.” It’s true, there’s a deep divide between us and the permanent workers. They’re friendly enough, but conscious of their higher status, and I think some regard us with suspicion. After all, we’re paid less than they are. Once or twice, I hear people voicing the fear that Bramwells might take on more agency staff in order to get rid of permanent employees. I’m now on a regular team, made up of a mixture of Bramwells and Temps R Us staff. Usually we’re on catering-sized ketchup or sometimes on smaller-sized bottles for supermarkets. It’s easy to cause chaos – not only by working too slowly, but also by working too fast. Give the bottles a little shove to help them down the line and they start piling into the labelling machine too fast, and then there are sticky bits of paper everywhere, all with “Chef’s Kitchen” printed prettily over a little green ladle logo. Alternatively, turn a single carton the wrong way – handle pointing backwards instead of forwards – and there’s that slurping noise again. I haven’t seen Lara for a week or two. But one day she reappears, trotting into the portable office as I’m picking up my pay slip. I’m surprised to see her: “I thought you’d left.” She looks equally surprised, as if not being at work for a couple of weeks and not phoning in are quite usual. She explains, mildly hurt, that she’s been ill every day for the past week and a half, except Saturday and Sunday, when she felt better. It’s the end of the early shift, so we go for a cup of tea. I ask if her fiance has come back yet and she says no, he’s still living with his new girlfriend, but he visits regularly to check up on her. She wouldn’t be working at all if he were there, she tells me. He used to pay all the bills. Now she’s starting to worry because she’s going to have to sign off soon and then she’ll have to find all the rent by herself. “You’re still signing on? You’ve been working for weeks! Lara, you’ll get done!” She says yes, she’s been thinking that. Maybe she’ll just sign on one last time this week and then stop. “I’m going to have to start coming to work every day, aren’t I?” she asks, as if she’s hoping I might have a better suggestion. She seems so innocent, somehow, as if life simply hasn’t taught her these simple mechanisms for getting by. Lara is surprised to hear that I was in the office picking up my pay slip – she’s not bothered to collect hers, let alone to check whether she’s been paid what she’s earned. I look at mine – for the second week running I’ve been short-changed. I worked a week in hand, so last week, my second week, I was paid for my first week. But somehow the office staff managed to pay me for four days instead of five. By the time they’d deducted my £12 bus fare and the £15 for my safety boots, I was left with £120 gross – a long way short of the £185 mentioned in the ad. I took home £106 after working a 41-hour week. Looking at my second week’s pay, I’ve been repaid the day I’m owed, but two hours’ overtime pay has been dropped from my second week, so I’m £11 short. When I protest again, I receive an envelope with £7.50 in it, enough for two hours at the basic rate of £4.30, minus tax, rather than the higher rate I should be paid for overtime. I give up. I’ve done enough complaining. Later, my third week’s pay is also £11 short. If I’d done as many of my colleagues do and simply pocketed my pay without checking it, I’d have received £3.85 before deductions for each hour I worked in my first three weeks. And that, of course, doesn’t take into account the £15 the company should have paid, according to my reading of the law, for my boots. Factor that expense in and the hourly rate for my first three weeks drops to £3.73. I’m left wondering how my workmates manage to have such active social lives, if they’re taking home so little money. Many of them will get only £4.10 an hour because they’ve arrived late or taken a day off sick without phoning in. Some of them have other incomes, of course – one of the women works in an off-licence three nights a week. She finishes there at about 11 o’clock and she’s back on the production line at six. Colin gets an extra tenner a day for driving the bus, and he saves a further £12 a week because he doesn’t have to pay the bus fare. Some people live with their parents, others have council houses, so their rent is comparatively low. Dave tells me he gets £45 a month compensation for the drop in earnings he’s suffered since the pit closed. It doesn’t come close to making up the difference. Some of my workmates have given up better-paid jobs to come here. Julie was a nurse, Sharon had an admin job – both found the stress too much. They want jobs they can go home and forget, and plan to stay here long-term. For others,Bramwells is easy-come, easy-go work. Some of the younger agency workers are just making a few quid so they can enjoy Christmas. After that, they’ll look for something else or sign on. Every day, as the bus travels along its route, there’s someone who isn’t at their appointed place along the way. I suspect Lara won’t last much longer. Saying goodbye to the River View Welcome Home Park is easy. I have never, ever, been so cold. The bed was so damp that on my first night I slept with a hot- water bottle and had to keep lifting the duvet to let out the steam. Gradually it dried out, but it never got any warmer. In a metal caravan with no insulation, you’re only warm if you’re sitting on top of the electric radiator, and that uses up about £5-worth of electricity if you leave it on all night. As well as my duvet and hot-water bottle, I’ve acquired a woollen blanket, which I double up, and a borrowed second duvet. Sometimes I put a cardigan over the top of them, but it still doesn’t stop me waking up in the night shivering. Having a bath is a shivery and laborious affair, too. I have to put the immersion on a couple of hours in advance, then try to be in and out in five minutes flat. Any longer than that without clothes on is more than I can take. In any case, the bath is half-sized, so my legs poke out over the taps. On the plus side, my lack of a fridge is not a major problem, because the milk lasts several days in my cold kitchen. And having my own space is a real luxury. Not having to share the bathroom is liberating, and it’s good to have a whole kitchen to rattle around in. There are no bugs that I can see, either. They’ve probably fled somewhere warmer. It’s turned out to be a quiet enough little backwater, if a grimy and cold one. I’d expected to be disturbed by other people’s music at weekends – after all, the walls are so thin, you can hear a flea cough three vans down – but apart from the sound of the trains, and the construction workers during the day, I don’t get disturbed much. Susie pops round occasionally to make sure that I’m OK. Both of her daughters have just had babies, and she’s glowing with pride: “Mum has waited 80 years to be a great-grandma and now she’s become one twice in a month.” And so I bid farewell to Bramwells. How have I been treated? With more humanity than I was in London, certainly, though some of the same problems have recurred – having to pay for my own safety equipment and the regular underpayments. But I find that in a friendly, cooperative atmosphere, my resentment about such things is considerably less. You can look at it two ways – a smile and the odd kind word costs nothing, and if it means workers are less likely to complain when they’re not treated well, then it’s worth the effort. I don’t think Bramwells is that cynical, though. Sure, there are two classes of worker – the permanent staff and the agency “muppets”, who do most of the donkey work while the permanent staff are on hand to deal with problems – but the presence of a number of decent, caring managers lifts the whole atmosphere. Despite the underpayments, getting by on the minimum wage in Yorkshire has been much easier than it was in London. I always earned my extra 20p an hour for punctuality, which helped. In London, I applied for a job that looked as if it was 40 hours a week, but I ended up being paid for only 30, even though I worked longer. In Yorkshire, I worked 41 hours a week and on the odd occasion when I got the right money, five of the hours were overtime hours paid at time and a third. My rent was £40 a week, rather than £65 in London, and my bus fare was £12 compared with £22. The temptations were fewer, too: I rarely found myself popping into a cafe for a cup of tea and a piece of cake, not least because I was working longer hours and had less leisure time. I won’t miss the mind-numbing boredom of the work, but it’s with a slight sense of regret that I take leave of my colleagues. Colin holds my hand and tells me I can come back any time. Julie gives me a hug and wishes me luck. Duncan doesn’t say anything – he just keeps on working away quietly. When the line stops because of some glitch and everyone gathers to chat, he stays separate, leaning forward over a stack of cardboard sheets, looking away from the group. It seems unnaturally quiet today, despite the roar of the factory. I find I almost miss his singing, drifting down the line.

All names have been changed.

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