I worked night shifts at a meat packing factory, and it was hell
I couldn’t eat lamb for weeks
There’s a Greek myth concerning a king named Sisyphus who is punished by the Gods by being made to roll a boulder up to the top of a hill, only to then watch the boulder roll all the way back down – and to repeat this cyclic action for eternity. Factory-work, whilst not lasting for eternity has the same character: it is defined by mechanical actions of the body which are repeated over and over again to the point of tedious absurdity.
Work for me started at 6pm and then dragged on till 6am. We had two fifteen minute breaks in between the 12 hour shift.
I got the meat factory job from an employment agency. I simply signed on with the agency and was quickly informed about work at a meat factory, and agreed to do the job on the given start date. The agency would even take me to the factory itself via their own minibus. I found it very easy to get factory work, I didn’t even need to submit a CV. With the job-market becoming increasingly cramped for space, I imagine many graduates might resort to this kind of labour.
Outside, the factory itself is vast in size and plain in colour, the only thing which is visually striking about it are the transparent revolving doors at the entrance. On the outside, it doesn’t look like a factory at all.
Going into the building, the flooring and décor is corporate, clinical and sanitised. Clean-lines, greys, blacks and whites, shiny tiled flooring – visually, a kind of dull perfection.
Once in the foyer of the factory, you are bombarded by a semi-stampede of workers who push and shove their way through the squashed mass so as to see a large table on a noticeboard. The table documents your name, what factory line you will be on and where you have been positioned to work on that factory line.
Once you find where you will be in the factory, you proceed to the changing rooms where you put on white working boots, a hair-net, a blue helmet, white trousers and white working coat. If you have a beard, you have to put a “snood” (essentially a hair-net for facial hair) over it. Your working clothes go over the clothes you are already wearing. Wearing several layers of clothing whilst handling meat for 12 hours makes for arduously sweaty labour.
Once dressed you proceed to a final room with two entrances, both leading to separate factory floors. Upon going to the entrance of the factory floor you are allocated, your shoes are washed from beneath you by rollers not too dissimilar – except in size – from the ones used in a car wash.
I am assigned the end part of the factory line. All the lamb has been cut up, packaged, had a price sticker stamped onto it, and then been placed into a crate.
It is my job to pick up the crate, place it onto the electronic weighing scales, print off a barcode sticker and then place the sticker. Following this, it is then my job to pick up the crate and place it onto the conveyor belt.
This motion is repeated hundreds upon hundreds of times over. Your body becomes an extension of the machines in the factory, repeating the same movements again and again so much so that with each swivel of the hips or bend of the knees you feel the an aching pain in that specific area of the body forming and gradually building over the course of 12 hours. Each section of the production line involves workers doing differing movements of their bodies, and each worker leaves the factory after their shift with a differing body-part in pain than someone else further up or down the production line.
It is perhaps the smaller aspects of manual labour which an outsider wouldn’t notice which makes such a job tiresome and infuriating. Over the course of 12 hours, sweat seeps out of all of your pores thus meaning that the disposable blue gloves which go up your arm have a tendency to fall down, and because of this, workers on all the production line replace their gloves dozens of time throughout a single shift.
The emphasis on speed thus ensures that more mistakes are made, thus meaning that factory-work is ultimately immensely depersonalised. Factory-work is the only work I have had where I did not know the names of the people I worked with – you simply do not have time to know, and the factory-employers probably don’t think it matters either. Such depersonalisation results in very terse, often profanity-laden communication between workers, often not even communication at all but simply the word “fuck” repeated several times over. Everyone begins to resent, even hate, the people the work with.
Speed also causes a profound amount of wastage. I don’t think many people are simply aware of the amount of waste that goes into the packaging of products simply because they do not physically see the packaging-process itself. The lamb chops were placed onto a tray, the tray would then go through a packaging machine where plastic-wrap was tightly wrapped around the lamb in such a manner that the packaging would be air-tight. Several trays of lamb would pass through this machine in seconds and due to the speed or the positioning of the tray on the conveyor belt, the plastic wrap would be applied onto it incorrectly. Thus because of this, the lamb would then be brought back up near the beginning of the production line. The plastic packaging would then be cut off with scissors and disposed of in a bin. The lamb tray would then go through the machine a second time, and stood a high chance of being incorrectly packaged once more. In a single shift, the sheer amount of meat which has to be repackaged goes into the hundreds, maybe even going above the one thousand mark.
Factory-work if it isn’t apparent already is immensely unpleasant. It is cheap exploitative labour which stretches your physical and emotional capacity to exhaustion. The only thing preventing you from falling asleep on the factory floor is the playlist of cheesy pop music – which yes, plays on a continuous loop – pumping out of the speakers on the walls and onto your eardrums. Such music is played not only to keep you awake but also to form a continual rhythm which every worker drone-like keeps in time with.
Then suddenly, somebody taps your shoulder, signalling that your shift has ended and it’s now time for theirs to begin. Whilst you sleep (or attempt to sleep – your body-clock becomes severely impaired) another batch of workers is doing their 12 hour shift, and once their finished, you’ll tap on their shoulders to signal to them that their time’s done and it’s your turn to push the boulder all the way to the top of the hill once more…
This is part of our 925 series, where young people tell us about their shitty part time jobs. If you’ve had it worse than this email [email protected] and tell us what you’ve been through.