Picking and packing: Experiences of a second-class worker

By Linda Hill

In 2009 Maree went to a Palmerston North employment agency looking for paid work. They employed her as ‘a casual’ on behalf of a major client—let’s call it Clothing Co. For four and a half years she was a ‘picker and packer’ of cheap imported clothing sold on-line and by catalogue throughout Australasia. I saw her occasionally over those years and knew she was increasingly angry about
her job. Recently she told me the full story.

Maree needed money but also time to be an artist, beekeeper and permaculture gardener, so she chose to work Sundays and two evening shifts a week. Picking work involved putting a bin from the conveyor onto a trolley, scanning its order number, listening to computerised instructions about shelf and item numbers through a headset, picking the garments from shelving racks and putting the bin back on the moving conveyor belt. The conveyors began at an ‘induction centre’ where orders were scanned into the computer. This was a ‘Siemens system’, developed by the giant German electronics company. “My sister did it years ago in Auckland, all by hand. When the computerised system came in, it cut out lots of workers.”1 The system kept statistics on how hard each picker worked.

Packing work at the other end of the warehouse involved taking bins off the conveyor belts, putting the items into a mail packet and the packet into a crate for posting.

“They called it light work but it wasn’t.” It was physically demanding—walking, standing, lifting, reaching, constantly on your feet for seven or eight hours. The floor was concrete with rubber mats only by the shelving aisles and postal tables. Workers were not permitted to sit, squat or lean on shelving. “Every now and again if you can just take the weight off your feet for half a minute, it makes a huge difference, but you’re not allowed to do that.” After two hours there was a 15-minute tea break, which came under threat when the Employment Relations Act was made more ‘flexible’ from March 2015. Breaks were retained at Clothing Co. at the cost of a possible pay rise. “Well, that was the day shift”—as a casual, Maree was always paid the legal minimum.

The warehouse was cavernous, and so cold in winter that Maree rugged up in beanie, jacket, scarf and gloves. In summer it was so hot that she would run her top under a cold tap and wear it wet; others wore a wet scarf. It was worst for forklift drivers lifting stock to the highest shelves, as temperatures under the roof could reach 40 degrees. “And there’s the management with their heating and their air-conditioning.”

It was also very noisy—conveyor belts running, bins clattering, forklifts operating, loads slammed down—especially in the postal section where 15 or so conveyor belts came together. Maree began to experience tinnitus. “I had to fight for weeks to get earplugs. On principle, I wouldn’t buy my own.” Day shift permanent employees were allowed to bring a walkman to shut out the noise with music, but the evening casuals were not.

The workers

I asked Maree about the kind of people who worked there. She said the casuals employed for evening shifts, weekends, public holidays and busy periods like before Christmas were quite different from the day-shift people who were employed permanently. There were usually 30 to 40 casuals; a least 25 were needed to be worthwhile running conveyors. Many were foreign students,
whose visas permit part-time employment, or new immigrants with permanent residence status. All were employed at the minimum wage by the agency, not Clothing Co. Maree described them as “…mostly Indian and Pakistani, some from Malaysian, Philippines, Nepalese, a Spanish guy, the odd UK or American, a few from Bhutan…from Eastern Europe, who’d talk politics… You’d meet some really interesting people, that’s what made the job.”

The turnover of casuals was high—Maree put the average stay at 2-3 months. Some went back to their studies, some found they were not fit enough to do the job, some were let go if the system showed their ‘stats’ were low. Casual employment meant anyone could be let go when the flow of work meant they are not needed. The company told the agency how many workers it needed next
week.

The 100 or more day-time pickers were permanent employees, as were supervisors, managers and office staff. Permanent pickers and packers got $2-3 an hour more than casuals. They had a collective contract negotiated by Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (now part of E tū) that did not cover casuals, although some conditions were also applied to them. The permanents were mainly Pākehā, older women in their 40s, 50s, even 60s. Some were holding onto their job until retirement—as was Maree. “Most that I talked to said, if they didn’t have this job,
they wouldn’t get a job anywhere else now.” The shifts sometimes overlapped by an hour or two, and some day workers worked with the casuals at busy times, so she got to know a few. “The number I saw taking painkillers was amazing. We used to laugh about it, because I was too.”

As permanents left, agency casuals increased. When Maree started, she thought the day shift were all permanent employees, but after a couple of years she noticed a whole section were also casuals. By the time she left, about half the staff were casually employed. “You’d think for [Clothing Co.] it would be better to have more skilled workers who knew what they were doing, but the agency, they didn’t give a damn…. They didn’t really want people to be there a long time, they seemed to want people who weren’t going to rock the boat.”

The employers

Maree worked for Clothing Co.—it was their clothes that she picked and packed—but she was employed and paid by the agency. “It was difficult because it was like you had two employers. You had the supervisors that told you what to do, and who also had a lot of say over whether you were there or not… And you had the agency that employed you, who had no idea what the work was like. So if things cropped up, they wouldn’t have a clue.”

An example was when the agency told Maree that her work stats for a shift weren’t good enough, without knowing that day and evening shifts had overlapped in the picking aisles. The evening pickers had been told to work in a particular way that took more time. The stats had been sent to the agency by a supervisor without explanation. Similarly, a comment got to the agency that Maree had been limping, and she herself referred to her stats to defend her ability to do the job.

A worry for Maree was her employer’s stability. Two agencies had been supplying Clothing Co with casual workers, but one went bankrupt around the time Maree began work. Its workers were picked up by Maree’s agency and paid for the previous week, but lost holiday pay of up to $1,000. Rather than wait until the end of each year, Maree made sure to “go on holiday” as soon as she accumulated a few days’ entitlement, in case this happened to her.

In the Clothing Co. workplace, things that cropped up for Maree were often health and safety issues—such as earplugs. Another example was empty bins piled up beside conveyor belts. At busy times, bins with new orders would accumulate, causing the belt to stop, so her supervisor encouraged them to move them to the floor. There might be a row of bins, sometimes two deep, where pickers were trying to put full ones on the belt. “We weren’t supposed to do that. When the conveyor stops, that’s how someone knows we needed more people back here to help us.” Maree would put the bins back on the belt and the belt would stop. The supervisors “were really furious with me for doing it… They’d like us to just start working like mechanical rabbits [to catch up] and I refused to because it was dangerous.”

Another health and safety issue was access to a fresh-air seating area. With no smoking in the workplace or canteen by law, and no-one permitted to go outside the building for security reasons, there was an unpleasant stand-off between smokers and non-smokers which supervisors did nothing to resolve. So Maree wrote to management, with whom she normally had no contact.

Raising issues risked getting off-side with the supervisors. It was they who made the week by week decisions about who got employed when. Maree’s two shifts and Sundays were not in her written contract and she felt she was being cut out of work, particularly public holiday shifts with double time plus a day off in lieu by law. If her supervisors told her agency she was “a problem”, other agencies in town would also black-list her. She knew workers sent by WINZ had no choice but to accept any shift they were offered, and that recent casuals were being given six month contracts with no fixed hours and had to be on call for any shift. “Which meant you didn’t have a life, you didn’t know if there was going to be work.”

“There was all these little things building up.” She joined the union once she realised she could do so confidentially, and quietly tried to get other casuals to do the same. The union assured her that a verbal agreement was also a contract and her regular Sundays also meant that legally she was not as casually employed as some. “I said to EMPU, if they do try and get rid of me, will you back me? And they said they would.”

Second-class workers

The precarious nature of the casuals’ employment by the agency increased the personal power of supervisors at Clothing Co. “The attitude to the casuals was really off. You were definitely second class workers, not just with wages but with attitudes.” Maree said the supervisors had been promoted from the day shift without any training in managing people or conflict resolution.

She gave examples of petty and unfair treatment. In hot weather they were told to drink plenty of the filtered water available, but not permitted to go to the toilet until their break or meal time. One very hot day iceblocks were handed out to everyone except Maree, because she had declined to stay on an extra two hours after a full Sunday shift. On Christmas Eve, one man sent a little paper and tinsel boat sailing down the conveyor, getting chortles from those further down the line. “I saw him apologising for that. He was eating humble pie to keep that supervisor happy… You’re not allowed to have fun.”

Not only were casuals not permitted music like the permanents, they were not permitted to talk to each other—the best opportunity was working opposite each other packing. Supervisors would hide in the aisles, then pop back to catch them at it. A woman in the day shift complained to the union about bullying. “She said she was picked on all the time, they used to make fun of her.” She
got a confidential settlement—about $10,000, Maree guessed. That supervisor spied on her workers through the security cameras. Cameras throughout the warehouse, monitored by a security guard, were legal for watching the stock, not the staff.

Permanent pickers were given their own scanners and headsets to use. Casuals got theirs from a common pool, yet supervisors threatened to have their pay docked for any damage. If a casual was a minute or two late, the supervisors reported a full 15 minutes less to the agency, instead of the standard practice of taking it to the nearest quarter hour. “I saw one woman walk in and the supervisor said right, that’s 15 minutes docked, and the woman said, well, I might as well go and have a cup of tea, then. The supervisor said, you walk out, you’re fired.”

She told me about a man from Slovakia—“really interesting, a musician, laidback sort of chap”—that a supervisor appeared to take a dislike to, telling him off rather than the group, in a way that everyone noticed. He didn’t know what he’d done wrong, and Maree regrets suggesting he go and talk it through with the supervisor. She saw them having a quiet conversation. A week or two later he was gone. “If the supervisor didn’t like your face, they’d get rid of you… Nobody wanted to fight because they would lose their job, and they would lose it anyway in the end.”

The employment agency’s attitude to casual workers also worsened, Maree felt, as staff changed. A former police officer was overheard referring to the casuals as ‘offenders’. “It was like it was your fault that you were doing this job… We are doing a job of work, it’s not charity.”

In response to this treatment, Maree’s own attitude deteriorated. “I was brought up that no matter what you do, you always did a good job. But after a while there, I didn’t care.” For example, new pickers received three days’ training but still needed to be shown things on the job. Experienced workers like Maree would do that—“you helped out”. After a couple of years, though, “I’d say, oh, go and see the supervisor, that’s their job.”

Maree retired a year or so early, thanks to a hip operation. Her final comment on the last job of her working life? “Every Sunday, I’m glad I don’t have to go there.”

The context

Clothing Co. had a reputation as a good employer with a unionised workforce— but this was not true for its poorly paid, poorly treated workers on casual contracts. What Maree describes is a company in the process of hollowing itself out, in pursuit of profit. In End of the Line, Barry C. Lynn shows transnational companies subcontracting parts of their commodity chain to lower costs and distance themselves from risks and responsibilities, while retaining the parts that ensure ownership of the end profits (brands, recipes, copyrights).2 Clothing Co. already buys or contracts manufacture of its stock in low cost parts of the global labour market. Here we see it cutting costs and responsibilities by buying its local labour by the hour or by the shift, and devolving employer tasks and responsibilities to a local contractor who supplies it with ‘just-in-time’ labour.

This hollowed-out Clothing Co. is a brand, a warehouse, a conveyor system, a marketing strategy of websites, catalogues and NZ Post services, a very large customer list and a very small management team. As a listed public company, it was swallowed whole in August 2013 by Australian-owned Woolworths, for $350 million. There was no bonus for Maree.

Linda Hill is a retired policy researcher.

Footnotes

1. Maree, oral interview with author, 3 October 2017. All subsequent quotations come from this interview.

2. He predicts collapse of the entire global production system for this reason, but that’s another story. Barry C. Lynn, End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation (New York: Doubleday, 2005).