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5 February 1999

A header and tailer comes to the end of the line

John Kirkaldytook on some casual work to make ends meet. He stepped into a labourer's hell

By John Kirkaldy

It was the shortest job introduction of my life. “You are the end of the line,” the foreman told me, “get on with it.” John, my instructor, had a bad speech defect but I was soon able to grasp the essentials. You tore off a red plastic bag and opened it with freezing fingers, covered the supermarket vegetable carrier and repeated the action 17 times. Five stacks made a palette and were taken away by the forklift. You started this at 7.30 in the morning and ended at 5.30 in the evening. Some people had been doing this for months; a few, for years.

As I was a student for longer than most in the 1960s and 1970s, I did more than my share of casual jobs. I have been an assistant to a very drunk Santa in a space-age grotto, sold coffee at Harrods and toys at Barkers, driven lorries, helped in a mortuary, worked as a hospital porter (holding the light over the bodies in the operating theatre and burning the limbs from the amputations), laid lawns, dug foundations, struggled on a building site as a hod carrier, delivered the post, waited on tables and been an assistant to a storeman.

When I took early retirement last year at the age of 50, I found myself short of readies over the winter months and decided to rejoin the bottom end of the labour market for a few weeks. It was like going back to school, enrolling in something I thought I had left far behind.

Only Hieronymus Bosch could do full justice to the vegetable processing plant, just off the motorway. Although it did deal with other vegetables, nearly all of its work was processing swedes for hundreds of supermarkets. In the early morning, lorries would thunder in, dumping thousands of swedes into hoppers by the end of the conveyor belt. Seen in the half-light, they looked like so many shrunken heads. Soon the conveyor belts would be cranked into motion; mounds of swedes would start their journey towards the nation’s tables. They would be topped and tailed, inspected, weighed and dumped into the carriers. More stacks would be made and in the evening other lorries would come shuddering to a halt to be loaded for shelves all over the country. All of this to the non-stop cacophony of Radio 1.

The biggest change to the casual job market since I was last employed is the growth of agencies. In my younger days they were an important part of the skilled and semi-skilled markets. Now they are also one of the biggest providers of unskilled labour. I can only speak for the three Jobcentres that I used, but they were next to useless for finding work. The advertisements were largely out of date and the staff seemed more interested in processing unemployment claims than helping people find jobs. That other alternative – the local paper – still works, but every year the Agencies Rule More, OK.

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The agencies often are installed in very plush buildings and staffed with pushy youths. Firms increasingly find it more convenient and less trouble to recruit through them. The reality is still the same, despite all the forms filled in and the cheery staff handbooks issued: you only get £3.80 per hour for working on the swede conveyor belt. Dealing direct with an agency can also have problems, as my eldest son found out when he badly injured his hand in a factory with faulty machinery and very little safety provision. It took nearly three years to get compensation from the agency for his injuries and loss of wages. Many workers, non-unionised, uncertain of their rights and almost certainly lacking legal advice, would not have had the stamina for the fight; the agency, with a good lawyer, did.

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After two days on the bags, I was transferred to another part of the conveyor belt. Armed with a knife, I became a header and tailer. This meant grabbing the swedes off the line, giving them a quick inspection for any faults, cutting off the top and bottom and then piling them into the waiting containers. You had to do 20 of these containers an hour or the supervisor would be screaming obscenities in your ear. The same would happen if you failed to notice any defects, such as frost, disease, blemishes or being underweight or overweight.

The first few days were awful. The conveyor belt was at the wrong height, so I was permanently stooped. I developed blisters on my hands (all gloves were banned). My arms, back, shoulders and legs ached. Then there was the strain of standing on one spot for nine hours (we got 20 minutes off in the morning, 30 minutes in the middle of the day and 10 minutes in the afternoon – we were not paid for any breaks). You were not even allowed to go the lavatory, as this hampered the conveyor belt. ” You piss in your own time, not ours,” I was told bluntly.

A lot had not changed over the years. There were those without skills or qualifications. The factory was the stage above being on benefit. It was generally agreed to be the worst job in the neighbourhood, with the possible exception of chicken-skinning or working on the sandwich production line. It was not the hardest job, but the hours and the repetition made it deadening.

Among the workers, there were those who were down on their luck. Like Jim, standing next to me, who was an out-of-work painter and decorator; he hoped that the job would be a fill-in but he was in late middle age and it was taking on an increasingly permanent look. He was very dextrous with his hands and could manage 30-plus containers an hour without any sweat, singing and joking all the while.

There was another group who regarded the job as a temporary lull in their existence. There were a few foreign workers, travelling the world. I missed Giuseppe, an Italian migrant, who in his three months on the bags learnt no English whatsoever, except “swede”. Eric was a part-time, term-time-only librarian at the local university, hoping for a better contract.

The biggest change I found were the students. I know that I am probably looking back with rose-coloured spectacles, but I am sure that we were a more cheerful lot. This was captured for me recently when I returned to my alma mater, LSE, and the pub where we put the world to rights over many pints. Now there was a sign that said: “No students allowed on these premises.” When I asked why, I was told: “Bloody students, come in here and all they order is a cup of coffee and make it last all afternoon or evening.”

The truth is that we were not usually saddled with overdrafts of four or five figures before we came on to the job market. No wonder we felt holiday jobs were a little more of a lark.

It was depressing to be reminded how very bad some British management still is. Nobody ever explained what the whole job was about and where you fitted in, and we were given little explanation about how we were meant to do the job: it was a case of picking it up as you went along. The supervisors spent a lot of time screaming at you, probably getting their own back for all the abuse they had endured in the past.

There was no explanation of health and safety, and no one ever seemed to think about job satisfaction. You could do the same boring job for weeks and then suddenly be changed,without any reason given. Although I was working during the Christmas period, there were no decorations or seasonal cheer in the factory.

The restroom was filthy and never seemed to be cleaned. It smelt of bodies, spilled tea and coffee, dirt and damp. The tables were piled high with magazines and newspapers, often weeks or years out of date. Needless to say, the various levels of management had their separate restrooms and parking spaces.

After stoppages, the average worker was taking home about £120 a week. Not much, especially at Christmas, to feed and clothe a family, even allowing for some additional benefits or contributions from other members of the household. The way out for many was overtime – though no extra money was paid for overtime – and the plant was more than happy to oblige: preparing swedes is a round-the-clock, round-the-year activity. Some workers were coming in as early as four or five o’clock in the morning. They would grab some unofficial sleep for about half an hour at six and be ready again for work at 7.30. At night the conveyor belt often went on for two or three extra hours, especially just before holiday periods.

If you kicked up a fuss, management tended to take it out on you by transferring you to the least popular jobs and keeping you there for a good long time.

There were a few compensations. I had forgotten how deep you sleep after a really hard day’s work. Once you left the premises, there were no worries about the job. You wanted to put it as far behind you as possible. We had a few splendid fights with the swedes; you were meant to chuck out any defective ones and they made wonderful missiles. I even managed to get used to the work and made my quota. A kind of world-weary gallows humour pervaded the place. The word “fuck” and its derivatives, noun, adverb and adjective, dominated every sentence.

The cast was always changing but its essential nature remained the same. Some members only stayed a day or two. One student did not make the first break. A few had been there for more than ten years. As long as you told the agency in advance, you could take the day off. Something that Stan, an old soldier, needed. He used to go on some terrible benders and had bottles of Smirnoff hidden around the place “for his heart”. He told me that he was in Belfast for Bloody Sunday. When I said that I thought that this had taken place in Derry, he tapped his nose: “That’s what they tell you.”

The politics of the place were predictably those of Alf Garnett. The place was divided on Saddam Hussein: some felt that he should be shot and then nuked; the more liberal wing felt that nuking of the whole country would be enough.

I had the choice of leaving the end of the line and I did. For thousands, though, it remains the only, depressing option.