I recently signed up with Labour Direct, an organisation that supplies temporary workers to construction, manufacturing, hospitality services, warehousing, retail and other industries. One of their mottoes seems to be ‘work today, get paid today’. Well I worked and I got paid and had a few interesting experiences along the way.
I signed up at Labour Ready’s office on Bread Street, Edinburgh by proving I am who I say I am and that I have an NI number and so am allowed to work in the UK. I was told there was little chance of getting any office work – other temp agencies handle this market – but that there was likely to be some recycling or removals work. A couple of days after signing up, LR called me and offered me removals work the following day (Thursday of last week).
I had to report to their office at 06:50, be issued with protective clothing (trousers, boots and a luminous waistcoat) and a time-sheet then bus to my workplace, a well-known removals and storage company in Edinburgh’s docklands. Two other temps were going with me: a Hungarian called Attila (of course!) and an anonymous Australian from Canberra. We talked about Scotland’s lack of cricket on TV and our countries’ tourist attractions. The Aussie ventured that ‘Australia’s got a fucking big rock’.
We arrived at the workplace just after 8am and were assigned to our drivers. I was taken to meet Damian: what a lovely bloke! He’s originally from Manchester but lives in Dundee. He and it deserve each other. He took one look at me and walked off in disgust. He told me later that he’d been told I was Polish and so, in his opinion, I wouldn’t be able to understand what he’d be telling me to do. I stood around for a moment and then went back into the office to ask what to do. The dispatcher cheerily said ‘that’s Damian all over. He’s a miserable cunt and doesn’t fucking understand that every bastard’s got to have a first fucking day. I’m sick of the miserable bastard. I wish he’d fuck off and then I’d have nothing more to do with fucking Dundee. Just go and see him again and if he gives you any shit, come back here and I’ll tell him to fuck off.’
Thus fortified, I trundled back to Damian, received an apology because I wasn’t Polish and he was upset because he needed three experienced removals workers for today’s job and had been issued with two brand-new temps and was told to get some wardrobe bars. The forklift driver told me where to find them so I picked up 10 and brought them to Damian. He put 4 on the truck, along with some cardboard boxes, tape and other removals kit. Some time later the other temp arrived and we set off for Bathgate.
I guess the other temp was originally from Egypt or Turkey but he called London home. He was a Muslim and observing Ramadan so didn’t even drink water during the day. He was quiet, friendly had a gentle sense of humour and made up for Damian being the worst boss I’ve ever suffered. The job was to pack and load onto the lorry the contents of a 4-bedroomed semi. I assumed we were meant to take care of the family’s stuff. I’d certainly want to because that’s how I’d want removals people to treat my kit and because they were friendly, offered us tea all the time, bought us lunch and gave us each a £5 tip.
But I couldn’t pack fast enough for Damian, I used a tape-gun to tape up boxes, I used too much tape to secure the bottoms of the boxes, didn’t know how to get big objects down stairs properly and wasn’t strong enough and was basically useless in his opinion and should just sit in the lorry and let him get on with the job. He also threatened to drive home to Dundee, leaving me (and my colleague) stranded in Bathgate. I realise now that this was bluster but, at the time, he had me nearly in tears. I choked them back because I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of beating me and because although I know I’m hardly suited for this kind of work I’m going to give any task my best shot.
I accepted most of his criticism silently partly because I didn’t want to be sent away (and so lose pay), partly because he tended to apologise after each outburst and partly because I knew I wasn’t strong or experienced but would get stronger with regular manual work and better with more experience. As for the tape-gun conundrum: well I know I’m much faster with the gun than without it. He can go faster without it than I can so each to his own.
I only swore out loud once when I overheard Damian say to the family ‘you know we can’t pack paints or other things that might burn’ because he hadn’t told me this and so I’d merrily packed paint, fuel and thinners. He overheard me say ‘oh bloody hell’ and asked why, then told me ‘they’re packed, leave them, we’ve no time to unpack them’.
It turned out the family had vastly underestimated the number of boxes we’d need to pack and the volume their stuff would occupy. A small van delivered more boxes in the middle of the morning and in the afternoon, Damian drove the lorry back to Edinburgh to unload the boxes we’d already packed and arranged for another lorry to pick up the stuff we’d yet to pack. My colleague and I finished packing it just before the other lorry arrived. The driver asked me if we’d done the paperwork. I replied ‘no but tell me what needs done or give me a look at the paperwork and we’ll do it, no worries’. The paperwork was carbonless forms recording the number of boxes or other items as they were loaded onto the lorry: no problem. Just as we finished, Damian returned, much to my relief: he’d driven off with my rucsac (containing my wallet, phone and PDA) in the cab and I’d begun to fear I’d seen the last of them.
Damian drove us back to Edinburgh, dropping us off near the airport so he could try to get back to Dundee legally. HGV drivers can drive at most two lots of four-and-a-half hours each day, separated by an hour’s break. They then have to wait at least 8 hours before they can drive again. Because we didn’t get dropped off until 7:45 and he was likely to take at least 2 hours to drive his lorry back to Dundee, he would be risking illegality if he started at the usual time (5.30am) them next day. Also he was risking breaking the total time allowed that day because he’d have driven from Dundee to Edinburgh and back (minimum 4 hours) and twice from Edinburgh to Bathgate and back twice (at least an hour each way). This had added to his foul mood.
However on the way to Edinburgh, he became a lot more friendly and apologised again for his criticism, explaining again that it wasn’t my fault I was not suited to this work and that he was actually angry with the company for not assigning him sufficient, experienced labourers. I’d still never want to work with him again. He encouraged my colleague and I to claim we’d worked half an hour more than we actually had. I didn’t, losing me a whopping £2·53 but gaining me a fairly clean conscience.
Labour Ready’s office had closed by the time we arrived in Edinburgh. So this was a case of ‘work today, get paid some other time’.
On Friday morning, Labour Ready called me at 9am and asked me if I’d go straight to the removals company’s depot for some more work. I got there just after 10, was given a company shirt and assigned to a driver who’d brought a load over from Belfast to go to a flat in Morningside. The driver was gentle, softly-spoken and thanked me for navigating him to Morningside, even though I took him a long route (which I knew rather than trying for a short route and risking getting horribly lost in Edinburgh’s suburbs) and then thanked me again for navigating around roadworks that threatened to make the delivery address unreachable. My labouring colleague was Polish but guess what: he spoke English very well, even though he didn’t think so. He was also gentle and made sure that I took loads I could carry, reserving heavy loads for himself because he was stronger. When I thanked him for this, he said he was a bad man. I saw no sign of this and wonder what was on his conscience.
The woman whose kit was being delivered was much less friendly, insisting that we put her plants exactly where she wanted them, then changing her mind and making us move them. The plants were in bloody heavy terracotta pots and so it wasn’t fun to move them repeatedly. She also criticised us for not bringing in her kit in the order she wanted. We couldn’t: we could only unpack it in the reverse of the order it had been packed into the van and it took two people to move each plant pot with the care it needed. So the spare person (often me) brought in whatever else we could reach. I’m also miffed that a person who can afford to live in Morningside and have several paintings costing over £700 didn’t offer so much as a cup of tea, let alone a tip. Still, this was a much easier day: the average box-size was much smaller and I only worked 5 hours this day and so was back at Labour Ready in time to get paid.
All this work was at minimum wage (£5·05 per hour) so for 16·5 hours of back-ache and bullshit I earned £85·03. It doesn’t feel like much but it’s almost twice the amount I’d get if the DWP was giving me JobSeeker’s allowance (and I’ve received nothing so far despite claiming it on 28th September, the day after I arrived back in the UK).