After my A-levels I was looking for a job to fill a skeletal CV, earn a bit of cash and ideally get a taste of the world of work. So when a friend told me he had found work for £7.50 an hour the day after signing up at a recruiting agency, I eagerly cycled down to join him. Thus began my surreal experience of working life in a warehouse.
In this production line of misery that the delivery industry turned out to be, such agencies act as middle-men for courier companies, reducing the overall accountability of the zero-hours contract system while allowing the rights of the workers to be legally watered-down. Prospective employees are “hired” by the agencies and then distributed out to warehouses for an hourly fee on top of their wages.
Arriving at the agency, I was instantly told that if I wanted to proceed with the application, I would have to ‘opt out’ of the ‘working time directive’, an EU rule whereby a worker cannot work more than 48 hours a week. I was also asked to complete a brief English language proficiency test in a booklet that had the answers printed on the next page. My paperwork complete and English skills apparently sufficient, I was told I had work that night in a nearby warehouse from 10pm-6am.
I was greeted at the entrance in Polish and, after a few minutes of garbled English, I was eventually directed to a man in his early twenties, apparently my boss, who simply gave me some gloves and grumbled, ‘Ask John what to do.’ Naturally, John was very busy and tired. A two-minute conversation explaining that my job was to help carry boxes from one lorry to the next and generally not get in the way was apparently the full extent of my training. The work was menial and physically exhausting.
During a brief break I began talking to my colleagues and was struck by the fact that some of them had been working nights there for 25 years on exactly the same (minimum) wage as me. My pay was sufficient for some quick cash, but I could not begin to imagine renting a flat and feeding a family with it. The only other English-speaking agency worker was in his late fifties and hoping to get taken on permanently, despite already having knee and back problems from the heavy-lifting (which far exceeded HSE regulations).
It rapidly became clear that many of my co-workers had an addiction of one form or another. While the man who had taken me under his wing smelt suspiciously of alcohol at the start of each shift, another hinted at a serious gambling addiction, while a third openly admitted to heroin addiction. Having already sensed the dreary hopelessness of the place, I could see why. It was essentially a dead-end job with very antisocial hours, and yet the only alternative was to become a benefits claimant and eventually homeless.
Many of my colleagues were deeply dissatisfied with their lot in life and seemed to be going through the motions. One notable exception was Paul who, despite being as exhausted as the rest, was proud to have a proper job instead of becoming a drug dealer – the chosen profession of most of his school friends. However, there was rarely any conversation regarding hopes for the future, family, or even football. It centred almost exclusively on how shit the job was, how tired we all were, and how much we wanted to go home.
Of course, many of these workers had no meaningful relationships with their families or any social life of which to speak. My supervisor’s only quality time with his kids was over breakfast before school and in the late afternoons on weekends. A night shift makes you permanently exhausted and takes all energy away from the day time which, combined with the anti-social hours of the work, left these men with very little to talk about.
After seven gruelling hours, the worst part of the shift began. The boxes for distribution are kept in separate piles to be distributed to the van drivers, many of whom are given ludicrous quantities of parcels to deliver during their shift and often end up working ten hours a day. Of course, the rota was set by one of the drivers, who was giving good schedules to his pals while shafting everyone else. Therefore, after a period of relative inactivity, there was a flurry of action as we scrambled to cram the vans with as many parcels as possible under immense time pressure.
Finally, nine hours after it had begun, my first shift as a courier warehouse operative came to an end and I could trudge home, arriving just in time to see my mum pulling out of the drive on her way to work.
Having made plans to visit family the following week, I put the agency work on hold and was given another placement on my return. After a morning of activity there, the afternoon job was to start tidying up a smoking scrapheap of rusty metal on the estate behind the warehouse. My gloves having ‘disappeared’ during the lunchbreak, the other agency worker and I began the task of throwing rusty scrap up into a twelve-foot skip, with no gloves or safety equipment whatsoever – occasionally having to scramble away when we were unable to throw the lumps of metal high enough and they came crashing back down towards us.
In the brief window when we were not being scrutinised by a bored supervisor, my colleague, a man in his mid-twenties with a visibly weathered face, recounted some of the ‘even shitter’ placements he had done in the past. While packaging products for a well-known retailer, he was forced to spend almost a quarter of his daily wages commuting out to an industrial estate in the suburbs, at which point he would often be told that he was not needed that day and be sent back home, leaving him severely out of pocket. With a daughter a two-hour train journey away in Manchester, he was left the choice of accepting being treated with contempt or not being able to afford to see his daughter.
Such harsh choices were a common theme amongst the agency shift workers. Two brothers at the first warehouse told me they were only working there so they could claim Universal Credit. At a time where low-income families are struggling to stay above the bread line, refusing to enter the world of work was not an option for these two, even if it was condemning them to a lifetime of work in the gig economy. The government is allowing agencies to act as a production line to shift people into insecure zero-hours contracts, while simultaneously celebrating the positive employment figures this generates.
By far the most aggrieved by the zero hours system were the many Eastern Europeans with which I worked. While I had been outraged by the gall of the agency when they asked me to ‘help them out’ with an afternoon shift straight after my first night, some of my Polish colleagues regularly worked two shifts a day without so much as a grumble.
It certainly raised questions about the merits of low-skilled immigration. On the one hand, these men (for they were always men) were happy to have the work, or they would not have made the journey. But it made me feel guilty. Most pro-immigration liberals pat themselves on the backs for their progressive and inclusive worldviews, while simultaneously paying a pittance for online services which exploit these workers for peanuts. If immigrants prepared to accept poor conditions were not here, we might actually have to pay the true labour costs for these menial jobs to be filled locally, something which the modern middle-class consumer would rather ignore. Perhaps some redress can come in the form of Brexit as a decreased labour supply will help push wages up, even if corresponding price adjustments cause the usual press frenzy.
The most disappointing aspect of my time in the warehouses was the indifference that I encountered among my colleagues. Here was a group of people that felt entirely apathetic towards a political system that does not represent them. The workers who engaged in current affairs read the Sun, while ‘union’ was essentially a dirty word – only one man admitted to being a member of one and recognised they were unable to help him as he was not technically employed by the warehouse.
If I learnt anything from my brief glimpse of zero-hours contracts in the UK, it was that there is no meaningful representation of these people in contemporary politics. Instead of anger, I encountered weary acceptance and a total absence of hope. Sadly, even the self-proclaimed socialist middle classes do not want to engage with the exploitation so close to home, especially now that Brexit hysteria has become the all-consuming topic of the day.
If nothing else, the experience has made me think twice before dragging another trinket into my online shopping basket. We may benefit from free next-day delivery, but these men are surely paying for it.