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17 January 2000

Working flat out for £20 and a Kit Kat

Low pay, no security, backbreaking schedules: Geoffrey Beattie experiences the casualisation of labo

By Geoffrey Beattie

I had been told to turn up at five o’clock in the morning to be first in the queue for work. I would be paid at the end of the day. It was an American concept. Work today, paid today. The casualisation of labour. But there had been a storm the night before in Salford, with the wind and the rain lashing against my window. Threatening and irregular, it kept me awake. I got up a bit later than I had intended, and got to work after six, but I wasn’t first.

I looked around to get my bearings. One man in his late twenties sat huddled under his coat on an armchair. A girl of perhaps 19 sat on a settee. She had tinsel in her hair. They were watching Goldfinger on a large screen and drinking coffee. James Bond was enunciating Pussy Galore very carefully. “Poooosy,” said the man peeping out from beneath his coat, sensing my presence. I must have smiled, because he said it again.

I went to the reception desk and registered for work. A surprisingly cheerful young man explained to me that I would have to complete a safety questionnaire. “It’s alright,” he said, “it’s multiple choice.”

He told me to fill it in at a large table. I assumed that it would be very easy. “When are drugs permitted at a job site?” it asked. “Never” was the first answer. I was just about to tick (a), chuckling quietly to myself at the idea that some people might think that you are permitted to bring a large lump of hashish to a building site, when I noticed that the second answer was “Only when prescribed by your doctor”. “What is the most common site injury?” it asked next. “What is the safest way to carry objects up a ladder?” “How should you carry a power tool?” I had no idea, so I guessed.

The young man behind the counter smiled at me benevolently when he gave me my score. “You got 65 per cent, but don’t worry. Oh, and you got today’s date wrong.”

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“I’m sorry,” I said, trying a wry smile.

He didn’t tell me any of the correct answers, he just told me to take a seat, and help myself to a coffee and a doughnut. I sat next to the girl with the tinsel, who didn’t look at me. “This film is crap,” said the man from below the coat. “So is the latest James Bond film. They’re all crap.”

I could hear American voices from behind the counter. Young men with co-ordinated shirts and ties. Immaculate at this time of the morning.

I noticed that there was a sign above a full-length mirror on the far wall. I went over to read it. I stood there in front of the mirror, looking at myself, padded against the cold of a Salford morning, with a thermal vest below my sweatshirt and an old leather jacket. My eyes were red, the lower lid of the left one was twitching. I found myself staring at the little spasms of the lower lid. “Would you hire this person?” the sign above the mirror asked.

They wandered in individually. Young men with shaved heads and the remains of attitude. The young man behind the counter knew most of their names. Most of them were regulars. A man sat down beside me and we started talking. He had a South African accent. He said that he had to get out of his home country. His wife, fortunately, was entitled to an Irish passport. “There’s a rape every 26 seconds at home,” he told me. His brother had been hijacked. “He was stripped naked and kicked to pieces, that’s when we decided to leave.” He had been in the quality assurance field in South Africa. Last week he was cleaning aircraft seats with high-pressure hoses for £4.15 an hour. But life was better here, he said. His wife could walk the streets at night. “There are some gang-related shootings in Salford, but it’s nothing compared with back home. You’re very lucky here,” he said. “You should count your blessings.”

I laughed politely and went back to looking at the big screen. Counting my blessings. Goldfinger was raiding Fort Knox, and Pussy was co-ordinating her team of foxy girls. The man below the coat had got a laugh once, so he tried again. “Poooosy Galore.” Nobody responded, so he pretended to go to sleep. I sat and I waited. I noticed that a lot of those who had arrived after me had been sent out on jobs before me. Goldfinger was ending. Mr Bond, at least, was on the job.

I assumed that I was being passed over because of my score on the safety quiz and because I didn’t seem to know what date it was. Or perhaps it was because I could claim none but the most basic of labouring skills.

The girl with the tinsel put on a new film. It was Judge Dredd, with Sylvester Stallone. I found myself watching it. “Would you care to explain that, citizen?” said Judge Dredd, judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one. I wanted to know why I was still there. There were only two of us left now. Me and some late arrival. I tried to start up a conversation, but he wasn’t interested. I asked what the work was like here. “Shit,” he said. “I’m only staying till half nine, and if nothing comes up, I’m going home.”

I thought about going back to bed. It was nearly nine o’clock. I had been there for almost three hours. Then I got the call. “It’s factory work, Geoff,” said the young man with the open smile. “It’s warm and dry and not that bad. It’s putting zips on to jackets. One of the staff will give you a lift.”

I went out the back and jumped into a small car with an American with thick, heavily lined skin. He was under pressure because they had sent up a gang the day before but they had not made the target. It was a rush job before Christmas. Some jackets had the wrong zips, they had to be fixed. “We’re bailing out China,” he said in a way that only an American could. “That’s where the cock-up occurred. Are you ready for this job today?” he asked.

“I am,” I replied.

“Are you really ready for it?”

“Definitely.” I noticed that there was no trace of my Irish lilt. I was becoming posher by the minute. I wanted him to notice that there was something different about me. It was pathetic really, but I wanted to stand out like I did when I was a student on summer jobs on building sites. But I didn’t.

I asked him about the agency. “Well, in the States we get a load of homeless people working for us,” he explained. “They queue around the block for a job, but you lot in Salford are a lot better off. You all have houses.”

I nodded vigorously. “Indeed we do.” I asked about the rate of pay, but he said that he couldn’t remember it offhand.

Then he returned to the stresses he was under, with the guys letting him down: “I could train four monkeys to do this job.”

We arrived at the factory in a part of Manchester that I didn’t know, but there was trouble already. The man who liked to say the word “poooosy” didn’t want the job when he saw what it involved and he wanted a lift back. Two Americans, who had driven to the factory in another car, were discussing whether he deserved the lift or not. I was led in past the regular workers, who looked at me with cold condescension. I sensed my place. The guy who had been huddled under his coat was walking up and down a little agitated. “This is a crap job,” he said. The two decided that he should be taken back, and he was led away.

I was shown the ropes by Phil, who had been there for a week. “It’s fiddly,” he said, “and as boring as hell, and the pay is shit. But apart from that . . .”

Our boss, sensing the mood, decided to stay for an hour to motivate us. He talked about us bailing out China, and then talked about us bailing out the company. He positioned me right beside him and offered to race me in the assembly of these jackets, and for some reason I agreed to try to fasten fleeces to jackets, and file down the zips and fold them and bag them quicker than him. The boss talked incessantly throughout. I beat him, and his retort was: “Gee, if you and the rest of the guys keep that up all day, then we might be out of the woods. You see guys,” he said, “this can be fun.”

He was quite serious. I could see Phil making hand-shuffling movements. The boss stuck it for about 40 minutes. He left us to it, suggesting that Phil should be the new boss for the day. “I’ll do it for £6 an hour,” said Phil.

“We’ll see,” said the American. It wasn’t yet 10am and I was feeling done in already, red-eyed and yawning.

The girl with the tinsel in her hair worked away on a bench in the far corner. She had a personal stereo and seemed to be in a world of her own. A few of the Salford lads were telling each other tales of gangland Salford as they fiddled with the zips. One of them said that he had told off one of the Salford godfathers for giving toffee to children. “The kids might get confused and accept it from perverts,” he explained. “Your man agreed with me and admitted that he was in the wrong. It’s just as well for me, otherwise I’d be dead meat.”

Another told how he took his daughter to visit his mother in hospital, passing armed officers guarding a recuperating gangster. “Daddy,” his daughter said, “the gun you keep in the cupboard at home is bigger than his.” They all laughed, but they made sure I was listening. Big men reduced to this. I noticed that three of them had mobile phones that didn’t go off once that day.

After the introductions, nearly all the talk was about money. I kept myself to myself. “Do you know how much you’re getting today?” Phil asked me.

“Not really,” I said.

“You’ll be lucky if you clear 20 quid. So slow down, for fuck’s sake. You’re not on piece-rate.”

Management in suits passed us, occasionally making friendly little quips our way, and Phil, Steve and Darren would smile back and whisper “fuck off, cunt” under their breath in one single exhalation. We were told at lunchtime that if we all went to the chippy our half an hour for lunch would commence as soon as we put on our coats. Only two could go. It wasn’t much of a chippy, though, because there weren’t any fish.

We had our lunch together in the canteen as the regular workers carried in food and drink for their Christmas party.

The day seemed like a month. I have never looked at my watch so many times, or felt that an hour could last an eternity. I always thought that time flew. Not here it didn’t.

In the afternoon tea break we got the left-overs from the Christmas party and a can of lager each “to take home with us”. We all drank them on the spot.

We knocked off at 5pm. The young lad in charge of us said that we had done loads of jackets that day. He also told us that the factory paid £6.55 an hour. We were on £4.15 – the agency pocketed the rest. I felt that we were being watched as we left the factory, as if we couldn’t be trusted not to attempt to relieve the boredom of the work with a few fleeces under our coats. Sometimes I feel that you can understand the motivations that underlie petty theft.

Phil raced us back to the depot and we queued for our money. I got a cheque for £23.10. The rest got two quid less because they had money deducted for the lift to the factory.

Our American boss was back at the depot, beaming away. We told him that the factory was pleased with our performance. Phil asked about our bonus for making the target.

He told us to hang on and he went into the back room. He emerged “with something for each and every one of us”. He gave us a Kit Kat each and told us that because we had done a good job we would be picked first on Monday for the zip factory. “You’ll be first away,” he said.

I heard Phil whisper “fuck that for a laugh”. I pocketed the Kit Kat and made my way out into a freezing cold Salford night, almost exactly 12 hours after I had started the day. My left eye was still twitching. I don’t know why.

Geoffrey Beattie’s novel, “The Corner Boys”, is published by Indigo