Working for the Car Factory: Induction

Continued from last episode….

I arrive about ten to nine. There are about ten people in the waiting room outside the factory gate, a small glass building with comfortable chairs and magazines. A minute later a woman who I recognise as one of the HR department’s secretaries arrives and tells all people here to take the temporary labour agency’s induction to please wait outside. All but three people obey. The weather is chilly and overcast and it is threatening to rain. I talk with an older woman; she says that when she took the proficiency tests, only four of seven candidates passed.

About 9:10, Mike arrives. By this point there are about twenty of us. Four women, including myself, the older woman and a young blond woman, all White; of the men, 7 are Black and 4 are Middle Eastern. One of the White men turns out to be Yugoslavian, and was encouraged to join by another Yugoslavian employee, who Mike also knows and describes as “the Eastern European Del Boy.” Another holds an extensive and puzzled conversation with Mike in Spanish. Mike leads us to the temporary labour agency on site office; we still take the stairs, but we only go up to the second floor this time—Mike says it is an act of mercy.

Mike leads us into a conference room, sparsely furnished. We all take seats; Mike remarks that you can tell a lot about group dynamics by how they seat themselves; when the older woman takes a chair from the stack at the side rather than choosing from those set out he says, “there’s always one, isn’t there?” “Yeah, and I’m it,” she says. He remarks that sometimes you get people sitting all in a group and sometimes all dispersed, but this looks OK. He fusses with a sheaf of acetate slides, which he says are the reason why he was late (“the printer wasn’t working”); he frequently pauses throughout his talk to hunt for one missing slide or another.

Mike starts the talk by reintroducing himself and remarking that we are now in a better class of room than before, but the Car Factory still hasn’t switched on the heat. He explains the outline of the day: i.e. first he will talk and have us fill out forms, then there will be a talk from the union rep, then from a trainer. Then there will be lunch, and then, he says, we will be taken on a tour of the plant. He says this is a very new thing; we are the first, the “guinea pigs” as it were. The older woman says no one told her about this (me neither), and when will we be finishing up? Four, he says, but you’ll be paid for the whole time.  He also warns us not to smoke outside of designated smoking areas, which are indicated by a painted green box on the floor or ground. “Filthy habit anyway,” he says.

Sara comes in and is reintroduced; she takes six people down to be photographed and carded, which she does at intervals through the rest of this. Also periodically through the talk, there are breaks in which Mike and/or Sara go off in search of various unspecified things or to do various tasks (usually remarking that we should consider ourselves lucky as we’re being paid to sit around); when one happens, usually four or five people wander off in search of a smoking area, and about the same number in search of the shop, returning with sandwiches, crisps, drinks, biscuits. the older woman returns from a cigarette break complaining that the designated area is a “fume cupboard.” Sara optimistically remarks that the radiators are feeling a little warmer now and if anyone wants to sit next to them for warmth, they can.

Mike explains about our status here; we are officially on a “summer holiday” contract, but really, he says, it’s an ongoing one; if you do the job and get on with people, he says, there’s no reason why, if you want to, you can’t carry on working here indefinitely. He says there are temps here who have been in the place for two years (i.e. since the factory opened).  He explains about the structure of the teams.  He also remarks on the ethnic mix of the people on the site; he descirbes the workforce as “cosmopolitan.” He says that the fact that we only have 9 ethnic groups represented here today is disappointing; last week, there were thirteen. He says they are trying to build up their own axis of evil for George W. Bush; “we have Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians and Libyans working here, so if any of you know of any North Koreans or Cubans, send them to us.” He also remarks that he interviewed an Iraqi for a job here just last week.

To be continued…

Working for the Car Factory: Assessment Tests

As part of my ethnographic study of the Car Factory, I worked on the assembly line (see introduction). To do this, I went through the same assessment and induction procedure as anyone else who wanted to work on the line, which I’ll outline over the next few posts, based on my fieldnotes and beginning with the assessment tests:

I arrive at the car factory about 9:40, having been told to get there at 9:45; there are already plenty of people there, hanging around the reception booth, a small glass structure at the factory gates. None of them greet me. I go into the reception booth, give my name and am given a small piece of paper with my name, the date etc. on it in biro—apparently a special temporary pass for temporary labour candidates, much less flashy than the pass I have worn to visit the factory on previous occasions. When I come out, the lone woman in the group (middle aged, office-lady type) smiles at me and says she guesses we’re the only two women here? The others are male—about one-third each White, Asian and Black. Several have a studenty look. Most are aged about 18-30; there are two older men. One of the younger White men approaches me and shyly asks if I have done assembly-line work before: I admit to not having done so, and he says, “Good, I’m not the only one.” He adds, “I can’t even drive!” There are about 20 of us all told.

Around ten Mike [all names changed to protect the innocent], the temporary labour agency manager, turns up, wearing a factory uniform jacket. Although we have met on several occasions before he does not acknowledge me and I do not acknowledge him. He introduces himself and asks if we have all remembered our proof of entitlement to work (excluding one very tall, bald, Black man, who apparently works for another plant in the group and whose details are there). There is consternation among several of the candidates. Mike is exasperated: “well, I told you to bring some!” He takes their names, then leads us the long way round to the building which houses the temporary labour agency’s office. The other woman protests at the length of the journey. She remarks that since there are so many men here, she and I don’t stand a chance of being hired.

When we reach the building we are on the side with the broken lift and have to walk up four floors; some protest. Upon arriving at the testing area, Mike wearily tells us not to complain about the heat, as they can’t turn the heater off. Much later, Mike tells me that all this is actually part of the assessment, intended to test physical fitness, endurance, and ability to cheerfully deal with difficult conditions.

We are split into two groups, directed by a small Asian woman named Sara. My group does the “practical” test first; this involves fitting together a small engine part following directions and diagrams in a booklet. This is not hard; my biggest problem is learning how to operate the ratchet, since I have never used one before (although, to judge from the noises from elsewhere in the room, neither have several of the others). The second group does a written test. The other woman leaves after the practical, as she has apparently done the written tests elsewhere. I never find out if she passed or not.

Then we all come together to do an attention-to-quality test, which involves looking at pictures of groups of objects and identifying those with defects; the second part involves classifying different defective objects by type of defect. One man with a Jamaican accent has to have the directions explained at length; another man, with an Oxford accent, complains that he can’t make out the pictures without his glasses. He is told to do the best he can. After these tests, my group does the written test.

Mike and Sara then go into an office to grade the tests; people sit around, one or two talk quietly but the rest stare into space. When they reemerge, Sara calls out six or seven names (including mine) and asks us to join her in the side office; Mike stays with the others. Sara informs us that we are the ones who passed, and now we will have our interviews. The others include: two young Asian men, a small Black man about thirtyish, and two young White men, one of whom has multiple facial piercings. She gives us some forms to fill out.

My interviewer is a man my own age named Tim. I explain to him about the project, and refer him to my HR contact, Tessa, at the Car Factory. He seems interested, and when he goes away to photocopy my passport he apparently asks does ask them about it, as when he comes back he tells me that Tessa will be handling my case from now on. The interview is not strenuous; he asks details of my previous employment, why I quit, have I done any comparable work before, what sort of assembly-line work do I feel I’m best suited for, what can I bring to the organization. I emphasise my teamwork skills and attention to quality. He makes sure I am briefed about shifts, salaries, etc. He does not shake my hand when I leave, but says that someone will be in touch about starting dates soon. I am left to find my own way out.

Next episode: induction.

Forthcoming appearance: Field Methods in Management Research

On 26 February I’ll be a speaker at Field Methods in Management Research, a free showcase & training day hosted by Imperial College Business School. It’s aimed at helping businesses understand how they can work with researchers for the benefit of their organisations.

Friends/colleagues in industry, this would be a good thing to flag up to your HR/R&D managers.

Information & Registration via EventBrite.

Families, factories and sleeping dragons

While I was working at Car Factory, my grandmother died. This wasn’t unexpected; she was ninety-eight and, although she’d been quite independent for most of that time, her health had taken a sudden turn for the worse in the previous six months. But she was someone I visited at least once a year and spoke to on the phone every week, so it was something of an emotional shock.

The day after I got the news, I was on the line, and talking with my line partner (I did the left side of the car, she did the right) about my grandmother, trying to process the information and remembering what an important person she’d been in my life. After a bit, my line partner frowned.

“What was her name?” she asked.

“Margaret– Peggy Moore,” I answered.

My line partner frowned harder. “Not Peggy from Upholstry Fittings?”

Well, of course it wasn’t– my grandmother lived a good three hours’ train journey from Oxfordshire. But it was interesting she might think so. My line partner had a grown son working on another part of the line, and his younger brother was likely to join him. Another female co-worker had grown up in the shadow of the factory and spoke proudly about how her father and grandfather had worked there.

Which goes some way to explaining why people in the local area would campaign to keep the factory going, even when the owner wasn’t too enthusiastic; why they welcomed the factory’s current owner, even in a political and social climate which was generally suspicious of foreign ownership, and why, if they complained about any of the factory’s previous owners at all, it was about ones who had generally given little evidence of caring about the local community at all.

Now, I’m not going to start pretending that corporations are benign local citizens. In and of themselves, they’re not. They’re in it to make money, at the end of the day. But, particularly when they’re in the area for multiple generations, like Car Factory was, they can become a big part of people’s lives.

Imagine people living next to a huge dragon that spends most of its time sleeping. In and of itself, it’s just being a dragon. But the added sulphur from its breath and fewmets improves crops; it’s a striking part of the landscape. People take pride in the fact that other people think of them as the villagers who live next to the dragon. Occasionally, yes, it wakes up and eats the sheep; but it’s also a living, breathing being that’s a part of your life, and has been a part of your parents’ grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives. And may well be a part of your children and grandchildren’s.

And that, in a way, is family.

On lanyards and personal identity

A friend recently observed that the current trend for wearing lanyards with ID cards seems to have aspects of identity performance: a way of visually indicating that you have a job, that you belong somewhere. That’s certainly true, but it can be rather complicated.

In 2012, I was working at a London university which had a noticeable occupational divide regarding lanyards and ID cards: Admin staff wore them, faculty did not. Both groups used their ID cards about as often as each other, but faculty generally carried them in wallets or pockets.

Then came the London 2012 Olympics. Before the event, orders came down that everyone on staff– regardless of pay grade– had to wear their ID card on a lanyard at all times, for security reasons.

Well, I thought, this will be interesting.  Because I was certain this divide was one of those things that isn’t a conscious part of your identity performance, but that is important nonetheless, and when you disrupt those, people are often uncomfortable in ways they can’t explain (Kate Fox, in Watching The English, is worth reading for how she explores and exploits this sort of social reaction). So I decided to watch what happened.

Sure enough, faculty dutifully put their ID cards on lanyards… and carried them in their hands. Or pockets. Or put them on just long enough to get from their office to the classroom before taking them off and leaving them to the side.

For my own part, even being aware of all this… I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable myself when I put on my lanyard. Like I was dressing up as something I wasn’t. I noticed that, like all the faculty, I was taking it off as often as I could. I knew why, but it wasn’t stopping me doing it.

What’s to take away from all this? Partly that organisational identity’s a complicated, organic thing that can be expressed in unexpected ways. But also that even something as seemingly neutral as wearing a lanyard can take on significance, and, when that happens, it’s a good idea to pay attention.

 

Lip Gloss on the Assembly Line

Last episode, I said I’d talk about uniforms and clothing at the Car Factory, so here it is, as promised.

There are always rules about what you can and can’t wear on the line. Jewelry and metal fastenings can damage the car; dangly bits of anything can potentially get you injured or killed. This is also, by the way, why visitors to the line wore white lab coats and safety goggles; not only did it make them easy to identify, but it covered up anything which might scratch the metal or catch on equipment.

Shortly before I started at the Factory, worker dress was: 1) soft trousers, without external studs or fasteners (zips were OK so long as they were covered), and 2) T-shirts, with, as far as I know, minimal restrictions as to style and content.

The plant also had uniform jackets, though in practice you were unlikely to get one unless you’d worked there for more than about six months, as the jackets were new enough to have a backlog. There were three different styles for workers, team leaders and managers, and they were hugely popular. You’d see them all around town as an expression of team spirit, if you like.

By the time I started, the under-jacket uniform had switched to 1) the abovementioned soft trousers, and 2) company-branded T-shirts, in three different colours (colour-coded to the three plant shifts).

The uniforms were nice-looking, and there were obvious advantages to wearing them: no worries about someone taking offense at someone else’s T-shirt, for instance. But, getting back to Factory Working While Female, there was another issue as well.

One morning, I rolled out of bed at five AM as usual, showered, put on the factory uniform, rubbed face cream on my face, and put on lip balm. Except I didn’t. By accident, I’d put on lip gloss. Pretty, sparkly lip gloss.

Now, there was no rule against wearing lip gloss on the line. Makeup in general wasn’t worn, because it could rub off on things and get them dirty (and besides, who wants that sort of fuss and bother in the morning when you’re just going to be spending all day slinging electrical testing equipment). Lip gloss wouldn’t do that, though, and it made a nice change from the usual no-makeup-face I wore on the line. So I didn’t really think anything of it.

But it definitely got a reaction from my teammates, male and female.

“Hey, you’re looking good there!”

“Done something new with your look?”

“That really suits you, you know?”

None of it negative, but everyone clearly noticed. Even something as small as sparkly lip gloss.

Not long after, one of the other women on the team was due some leave, and was talking about what she’d do with it. “First thing,” she said, “I’m going to get a manicure. And then I’m going to put on makeup, and a really frilly dress.”

It’s worth pointing out here that, although most people think of women factory hands as looking like Rosie The Riveter or the machinists from Made In Dagenham, where plant uniforms are charmingly accessorised with a nice (if practical) hairdo, a colourful scarf, some bright lipstick, a blouse just visible under the overalls… none of that was going on in the Car Factory. Nobody was wearing lip gloss, except by mistake. Nobody was wearing their hair in anything but the most practical styles. Necklaces were permissible, so long as you could tuck them into your shirt, but you saw more of those on the men (many of whom liked those big, chunky, gold chains favoured by hip-hop artists) than the women.

Now, it’s not something I’ve analysed in detail. But once I thought about it, it began to seem a lot like protective camouflage. Not a denial of being a woman or a pretense of being a man, but a way of saying, through dress and accessory, that gender doesn’t matter. That everybody at the factory is, essentially, just a body, same as any other body. That the important bits are the legs, the arms, and the head.

So, as well as health, safety, protection and preventing unexpected disputes on the line, the uniform also erased gender divides. It’s debatable to what extent this was a Good Thing, in that it undoubtedly helped generate a non-hostile atmosphere towards women, versus a Problem, in that it also reinforced native categories to the effect that it was not normal to Be Female on a car assembly line. But it was certainly a way of showing how even the smallest details of the workplace environment matter.

 

Another note on fiction

In my final undergraduate year, I did an ethnographic study of a drag cabaret which ran out of a bar in the Gay Village near the university. I’ll blog about it more later, but at the moment all I want to say is that I was unusually lucky and was able to get two actual, grown-up, academic publications out of it.

Although the bar was pretty well-known, I anonymised it in the study by calling it The Fifty-Four.

Sometime later, I started seriously writing fiction. One of the types of fiction I write is a series of intermittent dark fantasy stories set in and around a Gay Village which is essentially a fictionalised version of the abovementioned Gay Village near the university.

In the first published story, “The Kindly Race,” I needed a name for a village bar that had a drag cabaret.

I called it The Fifty-Four.

Let’s just say it was my way of contributing to the debate of whether or not ethnography is just another kind of storytelling.