Working for the Car Factory: the Tour, Part One

Continued from last episode

After the presentations, we are taken to a big building near the carpark, and introduced to Pete, a man with glasses and a goatee. He tells us to put on lab coats, and gives us battery sets with earphones and safety glasses. I ask if I can leave the tour early, as I’d already done the tour with my supervisor the previous month, and he says no. He tells us to wait in the area beyond until the tour guides arrive. This is a wide space with tables and chairs at one end, and two displays on the wall; one is of the history of the Car Factory and the other is of its current operations. The operational one emphasises the modernity of the proceedings and the ergonomics and general comfort of the staff. I’m starting to feel a bit like a battery-farmed hen. Joining us are two Black women and an Asian man.

I strike up a conversation with the hawk-nosed man. He is called Saeed and was born in the Middle East, but his parents are East African. He has been in this town for 16 years and is studying in London part-time.  I also talk with the Asian man; he and the two women have just started in Paint.

After about a fifteen minute wait we are herded into an auditorium at the back of the room behind black partitions by two older English men and two young German women. We are told to fill up the front row first, then the next one. There is an LCD screen, currently displaying the error message that the computer is locked. One young woman tries to unlock it for several minutes, then someone is dispatched to find an administrator. An older man stands up in front and introduces himself as Jim; he says that this is a new tour which they are going to be giving to other people, starting with a vintage car club on the weekend; we are the guinea pigs. He suggests to the girls that we start with the video. He passes around sticky tape for people to cover their rings with.

The video is about 8 minutes long and appears to have been translated from the German, without much fluidity. There are cumbersome phrases along the lines of “High Performance Stylings” which would no doubt have sounded better in the original. It shows us montages of cars, a potted history of the company, and an overview of all the major Car Factories  worldwide, with an emphasis on the Western ones. There is some branding: the car this Factory produces is cool, chic and sassy. Apparently.

After the video, there is another struggle to unlock the computer; the administrator herself tries and fails. The first woman is then dispatched up to the podium with a sheaf of notes. She gives us a talk about the company (most of which was already covered in the video), its productivity, its worldwide focus. This is obviously aimed at investors rather than at the likes of us. At the end of the talk we are informed that the two older men, Jim and Tommy, will be showing us around the Body in White and Assembly plants, while one of the women will tell us about Paint as we walk by it.

Continued next episode…

 

Working for the Car Factory: The Union Rep

Continued from last episode…

The union rep is about fifteen minutes late. We hang about, some talk quietly, one of the black men talks on his mobile. I start reading the book I have with me, Wild Swans, but Pris wants to talk. She talks about how the Car Factory is a real local landmark; it used to extend over to the other side of the road, where there are houses now, “but they’ll put up houses anywhere there’s a spare inch of land, won’t they?” The young blond man on my other side complains that he is sick of union presentations as he has sat through far too many. One black man with a hawk nose and Middle Eastern accent is talking with the others in his row about South Africa, specifically the animals you find there. Sara, sensing the boredom, starts everyone playing a word game where everyone has to come up with a different country for each letter of the alphabet (I get G: Germany). The hawk-nosed man is particularly good at this, whispering hints to people unfortunate enough to get stuck with Q and W. Nobody could think of one for X; Jo claimed she could but didn’t enlighten us. When we got through with countries we started on rock bands (I’m G again: Garbage), and had gotten up to H when the rep arrived.

The rep is named Liam; he looks like a skinnier, older version of Noel Gallagher. He has a very  monotonous delivery, stream-of-consciousness, and leans against the table with his arms folded. He says that 96% of the workforce are in the union. He outlines the benefits of joining: the first, he says, is the accident cover. He tells us about a man paralysed from the waist down in an industrial accident, and how the union were able to get him and his wife a settlement which allowed them money for a customised bungalow, car etc., although he never returned to work again. He tells more stories of equally horrible accidents. He adds that the union provides good fatal-accident cover, and that they have a free will service, which, he says, would cost you 40-200 pounds in the outside world. He goes on to say that the union will also provide representation in cases of disciplinary hearings, and tells us more war stories about these.

He passes out the form, and everyone, by this point thoroughly convinced of the benefits of union membership, fills them out. He asks if anyone’s already a member, and the blond guy says he is, and names his branch (a big hint that he’s worked at a Car Factory before). Liam asks him to reregister for here so that he can get more rapid cover. Liam emphasises that we should fill out all the fields of the address form; he says “it’s no good saying 10 Charlsbury Lane, thinking everybody knows where that is; this goes back to Newcastle.” He adds that we needn’t bother with the payroll number, though, as he can add that.

Continued next episode…

 

Working for the Car Factory: Induction Continued

Continued from last episode

Mike explains about uniforms; we will be given T-shirts to reflect our shift. People on weekends are the Yellow Shift, and get four yellow T-shirts; people on rotating shifts are either on Red or Blue shift and get four T-shirts in the relevant colour; people on Permanent Nights get two red and two blue. The older woman, Pris, asks me why that is, and I suggest that it is to blend in with whichever rotating shift is currently on. We will also get black trousers, made with no metal parts because it might damage the paintwork. Likewise Mike says that people working in certain areas will need steel-toe boots, but that in other areas these are verboten, because they might damage the paint; most, he says, wear trainers. He says that we are not to wear uncovered rings or watches; tape and sports wristbands will be provided. He gives us a health and safety talk, and warns us against being offstation; on the line 37 cars come by an hour, so if you take a 2-minute bathroom break you’ve missed a car or two already. Smoking outside of the designated areas is also streng verboten.

He passes around sheets giving the shift patterns. There is one person on Weekend and about six or so on Permanent Nights. He then gets those of us not on Weekend or Permanent Nights to pick our shifts, by dint of saying that there are three spots to start at 6 tomorrow and the rest will do the night shift. I wind up on night shift.

He then passes out laminated cards depicting the dress code, and on the other side a diagram of How to Push a Car. Mike jokes about the cards, saying they’re valuable and rare: he then says, “Seriously, I really love this place, my father worked for Car Factory for thirty years.”

Sara discovers that all but the last six of us have now got our ID cards and sends the rest of us downstairs.

The six of us line up outside and wait: Pris goes first. I talk with the blond girl about the weather, while some of the boys go outside to smoke. After Pris comes out, I go in, and am directed to a table around the corner where an elderly man positions me on a stool in front of a digital camera. “Say happy worker!” he says. I do. He then asks me to do it again as he erased the first one. I do and get my card a minute later. When I come back up Sara gives me a sheet on which to fill out my shirt and trouser size; we start talking about my project as she wants to know more about it, but as it could take a while I say I’ll explain more fully at the break. I never do; she vanishes at lunch and I don’t see her again.

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.

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.

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.