Following a recent conversation about the Tories and their ludicrous ideas around work and benefits, one of the older fellas in work brought me in a weathered copy of Robert Tressel’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
“Exactly a hundred years ago that was written,” he told me. ”A hundred years and almost fuck all has changed.”
Before I go any further, the fact that I’ve actually found some paid work sets me apart as lucky compared to a lot of people. Still, I never expected to find myself back doing casual manual jobs 20 years after leaving university.
Then, when I worked in warehouses and cold stores to top up my student grant – ask your parents – you signed up with an agency and they almost always had you working before the end of the week. If you didn’t like it, you left, safe in the knowledge that there were endless caverns full of orange racking on industrial estates in the North West of England that needed constantly filling and emptying.
The full-time staff, the ones allowed to drive the forklift trucks, were reasonably well paid while the transient workers were generally students or women doing a bit because the part-time hours fit in around their family commitments. Everyone was there because they wanted to be.
Now though, it feels distinctly different. The agency staff are predominantly men. Grown men with families to support. The hi-vis vests they wear have the names of their former employers across the back – Taylor Woodrow, Bovis, Jarvis – faded reminders, ghosts of careers past. And they work for minimum wage, £5.93 an hour. They get out of bed at 5am and drive or cycle through the drizzly darkness to hump boxes and sacks about for eight hours. In return they pick up less than forty quid a day.
Early on I mention the hourly rate while unloading a wagon with a bloke who is in his late fifties, an electrician by trade – everyone has another trade – who tells me not to think about it or I will drive myself mad. “Don’t think any further than your next brew,” he tells me. It’s great advice when you are doing work that is endlessly repetitive and soul-sappingly dull – divide the day into the two or three hour chunks between breaks, don’t wear a watch and avoid looking at the clock for as long as possible. It’s amazing how quickly the hours, the days and then even the weeks begin to slip by in a blur of boxes, breakfasts and bullshit.
After years of working at home or in offices I’d forgotten the petty indignities and tiny triumphs of this sort of work. One morning we are all told to turn around and head straight back home because there has been a mistake and there’s not enough for us to do; we’re not needed until the day after. There’s no real explanation, no apology, and certainly no compensation. Supervisors don’t bother to learn anyone’s name and make a point of giving the worst jobs to the agency staff.
In response, we delight in going for breaks a minute early and returning a couple of minutes late, and reading yesterday’s Daily Star while having a ten-minute shit feels like an act of outright rebellion. “I’m the Daniel Cohn-Bendit of dumps,” I certainly don’t say out loud.
The fact that anyone would want to spend any longer than they really have to in the khazi just underlines how dull the work is. You enter any given cublicle, or ‘trap’, like a scene from CSI – there’s no telling what you might face as that door creaks open, and I’ll never forget someone pulling back, ashen-faced and shouting, “Fuck me! It looks like a murdered monkey!”
As I said, it’s better than nothing. The money’s terrible but it’s more than the dole pay and the feeling of satisfaction when, with your feet aching in your safety boots, that first pint touches your lips after you’ve clocked off on a Friday is one of life’s genuine pleasures.
It’s these older fellas I work with, the former sparks, chippies and pipe fitters– good workers and genuinely honest, decent men – I really worry about in terms of what the future holds for them as this country becomes a more ruthless, mean-spirited place before our very eyes.
To keep spirits up, the old lags constantly reminisce about better days, when they did work that was hard but paid properly and their skills were valued - “We had digs just outside Kings Cross and the gaffer on this job was a Jock, a decent lad…” – while in the here and now they are spoken to like idiots by managers probably younger than their own kids. They say nothing but you can see the mixture of pain and contempt in their eyes – after all, when you bite your tongue and swallowed your pride for long enough you can’t help but develop a nasty taste in your mouth.
‘That could be my Dad’ I often think, disgusted. ‘Jesus, if I’m not careful, one day it could easily be me.’