Over the last four years we spoke to many night-shift cleaners from local food processing plants. Young guys having a spliff after shift, telling us that using the chemicals for cleaning in confined spaces make you think of Syria or other gas attacks. Women workers have less time, as they hurry to get the kids ready for school. From workers at Adelie sandwich plant to LSG Sky Chef airline caterer to Bakkavor ready-meal factory – they all tell us that the time given for cleaning the shop-floor is not enough and that despite their knowledge and responsibility they are paid the lowest possible wage. Read a longer report below…
At the Cumberland houmous and ready meals Bakkavor factory in Park Royal, there are two production shifts. One from 7am to 3:30pm, the other one from 5pm to 1am. Between 1am and 6am is the so-called ‘hygiene window’: the whole production area has to be cleaned thoroughly, following food production standards, before the next day of production begins again. There are around 500 workers employed in production.
We are usually around 20 temp workers, mostly men, and maybe five permanent. Most of us are from Sri Lanka, Goa, Romania, Somalia. In total there are only three women on night-shift.. We are divided in different groups: one for the high-risk houmous section; another for the high-risk ready meals section; a third one for the low-risk section; plus some people for the packing department. No one cleans the toilets or the canteen during the night, which is why it’s usually rather dirty when workers arrive in the morning.
We work from 11pm to 7am. We have a proper break between 1:30am and 2:00am (sometimes five minutes more, but no more), but no second break till 6:30am, when we stop anyway because production slowly starts again. We have to wait till 7am to clock out (for the permanent workers) or sign out (for the temp workers). As this half-hour is not paid (it corresponds to the second unpaid break), we are all pissed off that we have to stay.
It’s hard for your body and for your mind to work nights. Even when sleeping enough during the afternoon (eight to nine hours), I always wake up very anxious. The feeling is the same as when you have to wake up without having slept enough. I have had plenty of sleep, but somehow it does not seem right. The night is falling, I have to eat dinner quickly and take the bus at 10:15pm to go to the factory. Even at the weekend, when I can catch up again with a normal sleeping pattern, I have a constant feeling of unreality. It is exactly the jetlag feeling – except it is permanent.
When you look up on the internet to find some information about the effects of working nights, you find some interesting physiological information. But the catch-up line for those articles is always something like: many people, like doctors and firemen, have to work at night… Strangely enough, the huge number of drivers, production and logistics workers, etc. working nights never came to the mind of those journalists. Other bad effects of this job are most probably due to the use of chemicals: frequent nose bleeding, red and burning cheeks for hours after the end of the shift…
I asked a few of my colleagues why they work nights. One has a small kid, and can only take care of him during the day if she works nights. Another told me he did not like the job, but did not have another option. He brings the kids to school in the morning, after the end of the shift. The only woman working in the wash-room (late shift, not night shift), also needs to be free in the morning to take care of her kid. So juggling with childcare seems to be a common reason for accepting those conditions.
The shop floor
I remember on the first day, before going to the shop floor, I had to watch a power-point presentation called: ‘Cleaning safely with detergents and disinfectants’ from Sealed Air. The video explains the difference between detergent and disinfectant, the use of acid and alkali chemicals, the colour coding for those different chemicals (taps and labels are red for acid chemicals, green for neutral and blue for alkaline, corresponding to the pH scale used in chemistry – a chlorinated detergent has an additional yellow stripe), the risks of accidents, etc. The presentation lasts for about half-an-hour. After that, the manager asked me a couple of questions. He gave me a brief overview of the procedure for cleaning surfaces downstairs, distinguishing the procedure for cleaning the floor and the procedure for cleaning the tables and other pieces of transportable equipment. But when I went to the shop floor, I had a hard time connecting what he had said to what we were actually doing. Nobody explained anything to me down there, and I had to try and figure out everything by myself.
When we arrive at 11pm, we first have to sign in in the manager’s book. This book is a recent innovation: before, temp workers only had to sign in at the gate, on the agency list; as some jobs can be finished around five or six, some temp workers apparently managed to leave at 5am while signing for 7am at the gate; the manager decided to have his own book, which he carefully locks up during the shift. We put a hairnet and a cap on, go to the changing room, put our wellies (they should not touch the floor or anything outside of the high-risk section, so we store them in a plastic bag), wash our hands, put the coat and go down. There are a few pieces of equipment we have to carry down with us: the tool box, the water hoses’ heads, the chemical test wallet, cleaning pads…
When we arrive downstairs, production is usually fully running. There are five lines in this section: the mash line in the centre of the room, and two ready-meals production lines on each side. The four regular production lines are identical to each other: they consist of a long conveyor belt (five-six meters long?), surrounded by stainless steel tables of different shapes, around which a team of six-seven women work; the conveyor belt is immediately followed by a Proseal sealing machine, itself followed by some more belts with metal detectors that convey the ready meals which have passed the test directly to the packing department, which we see through the windows in the back wall.
It’s a real mess when we arrive on the shop floor. Production has run through the whole day. There are food debris everywhere: on the floor, on the walls, on the tables, on (and not only in!) the bins, etc. Workers (99.9% women) are active around the lines; the team leaders are stressed; late shift cleaners (100% men, except for one woman in the wash-room) try their best to remove the grosser debris and change the bins in time; operatives (100% men) bring trolleys with racks of already cooked food; other workers (100% men) continuously pour the content of those racks in containers disposed on the tables, for the women on the lines to take and dispatch in the ready-meals’ containers.
In the simplest case, the ready-meal ‘assembly’ consists of successively adding the ingredients in a small container, each woman adding one ingredient, either directly by hand or with a plastic pan; in this case, the most complicated part is the folding, if there is some (like in tortillas, chapatis, etc.). The next (and last) level of technicality consists of a large metal funnel filled with mash or tomato sauce, connected to a pressurized air pipe, and activated by a foot treadle: the repetitive pressure of the foot on the treadle delivers small more or less calibrated amounts of mash or tomato sauce into the containers conveyed by the belt. When the funnels are used, the ready-meal ‘assembly’ is a combination of hand-work, for most of the ingredients, and foot-work for the liquid component.
The mash room consists of a couple of machines to mash the cooked potatoes and mix them with butter, and a conveyor belt followed by a Proseal sealing machine. At the back of the room is this very large mashing machine, directly connected to the oven where the potatoes are cooked (the oven sits on top, something like two meters above ground): the potatoes continuously enter this big mixer and the mash is collected below in plastic buckets mounted on wheels; sometimes the bucket overflows with mash because nobody has time to attend them. I am always fascinated by this vision of the out-of-control mash slowly creeping to the floor… Buckets full of mash are also regularly thrown away (probably nothing wrong with them, but they’re not needed any more at this point).
Cleaning the chillers
Usually we clean two chillers every night, while production is still running. First, we have to empty the chiller. This is done under the supervision of a stock-controller (red cap). We work as a chain, pulling and pushing the trolleys (the heaviest ones are those with trays of sauce, I sometimes have a hard time making them move at all) out of the chiller, trying to find enough space outside to store them while we clean.
Once the chiller is empty (and the cooling is turned off), we bring a water hose and rinse the whole area, floor and walls, with hot water, pushing the debris to the drain present in every chiller (big ones can have several) and removing the heavy stainless steel drain’s cover which is also cleaned. It’s actually not so easy to perform this first operation correctly and quickly, as the hose pipe heads are rather heavy and one has to get used to taking advantage of the water jet’s shape (which you can adjust with the handle by which you hold the head) and the floor’s slope to collect the food debris in the drain, otherwise the debris are simply moved around and scattered. Simultaneously, one of us has to bring a bucket of hot water with soap (we use a chemical called Fatsolve), and a hard blue brush that’s used only for the walls and should not touch the floor. One worker brushes the walls with this blue brush. I do that very often.
After these first operations, a chemical is applied to all surfaces, in a foam form. Usually we use Oxofoam, which the provider describes as ‘a general purpose, chlorinated foam cleaner designed for daily use in the food, beverage and dairy industries…’. Some days we use an acid chemical instead. But an acid will react with chlorine to produce the toxic chlorine gas. Hence, before we use the acid chemical we clean with a non-chlorinated alkali for two days, and again for two days after using the acid chemical. We hope someone keeps track of the days…
While one of the crew begins to spray the chemical on the walls and floor of the chiller, the team leader takes a sample in the bucket and performs the chemical tests. The funny thing is, although this is always seen as a very important and complicated operation, performed almost like a ritual, the result, once obtained, does not really matter: the concentration is often completely off, but we carry on all the same (and the result does not seem to be recorded in writing). When the chiller is sanitized, we wipe the floor with rubber wipers to remove the water. This operation is quite tiring, especially when the chiller is big. But the trick is that some wipers are much better than the others. It really makes a huge difference: in one case, you break your back and sweat a lot without much result, in the other, it’s just soft and easy work. But of course most of the wipers are bad, you’ve got to watch out for the good ones… Cleaning two chillers as just described usually brings us close to 1am.
Cleaning the changing rooms
I am sometimes sent to clean the changing rooms. I hate the job. We spend hours cleaning the rubber shoes and wellies, the soles of which are full of houmous, mash, butter, meat, etc. – with a little brush and mostly cold water… You also have to brush and mop the changing rooms and a long corridor connecting the high-care ready meals changing room to the stairs going down to the production area. I was shown only once what to do, and it was actually quite a lot to remember, especially since some tasks did not really make sense but had to be performed all the same. You also need some understanding of the late shift pattern and habits, because you don’t want to clean the shoes of workers that come up only for a break and will go back to production again. But nobody tells you that, you have to figure it out for yourself.
Cleaning the shoes suck. And it can be damaging your health. A colleague got an infection – actually some sort of fungus, against which she had to take a strong six weeks treatment, with bad effects on the liver. Her nails were all yellow and brittle. When she told the manager about the infection, he said it was her fault, because she did not wear gloves. She did actually wear gloves, but their standard gloves are rather shit and easily get torn up, which is what had happened to her. And as it’s always a struggle to get a pair of gloves, and they make you feel guilty if you ask for a new pair, you end up trying to use them for as long as possible, even when they have tears and you should actually change them.
The good thing about working in the changing rooms is that it is silent… Compared to the high level of noise on the shop floor, that’s quite appreciable. You can also have short conversations with production workers (till 1am) or with hygiene colleagues going to break. But then managers also want to talk to you, which can be unpleasant. Some are sleazy.
Cleaning the assembly line
If you don’t clean the changing rooms, you are sent to production. From 1am to 1:30am, we prepare the area for cleaning. The different areas are: assembly lines area, mash area, cook-house area, wash-room. I usually work in the assembly lines area. In this area, we first have to remove the gross debris on the floor with wipers, collect all bins together and bring them to the bin area, clean the assembly lines’ control boxes, motors and switches with sanitizer paper and cover them with plastic bags (for them not to be too soaked during the cleaning process). Usually, there is barely time to bring the water hoses to the area before we go to break at 1:30am.
At 2am we go back down, and the hard work begins. In the assembly lines area, the steps are exactly the same as for cleaning the chillers (except the area is much bigger, and not empty as the chillers are): clean the whole area with hot water, open the drains, collect all debris into the drains with the hose, empty and clean the filters; apply the chemical in foam form to the floor, walls, stainless steel equipment and on every accessible surface of the assembly lines and conveyor belts; brush the floor with the hard brush; rinse everything with hot water; pour hot water into all drains and close them; sanitize the whole area with a sanitizer dissolved in cold water.
Usually they send me to the wash-room to fill a specific rolling bucket with hot water and Fatsolve. But even this simple operation can be a bit of a headache. The soap is contained in heavy plastic cans (25kg) locked by groups of two in a small metallic trolley; if you want to take one can out to pour the chemical, you need to open the padlock that locks the cans inside the trolley; but only the team leader has the key of the padlock and even he would think you should not bother him for this purpose, although that’s what you should do; so what most workers do is pour the chemical by tilting the whole trolley (more than 50kg), spilling chemical all over the place. Anyway, rubbing everything with this soapy solution takes hours, because you have to dismantle the table’s tops (rather heavy, as they’re made of stainless steel), reach all table’s feet (lots of bending), rub thoroughly the conveyor belts’ rollers, which are not easily accessible, rub the belts themselves, etc. And you’ve got to be quick, because everything has to be done before the other worker begins to rinse the whole area with hot water.
Sometimes I also clean the sealing machines, which include: clean the doors and the whole frame without spilling water everywhere as there is a detector inside that should not be soaked; clean all belts and rollers. The belts and rollers can be very dirty, as food gets trapped in the rollers and there are something like twenty rollers in a single machine. The rollers are not easy to access either, as they are partly covered by the belts. To clean them, you’ve got to open a sort of metal lid and plunge your head inside the case, while holding the hose head – then pull the belts while spraying water. The lids should stay up when you open them (with a magnet), but half of them don’t and you’ve got to hold them with your shoulder while plunging your head inside. If you wear the safety goggles, they quickly get covered with water droplets and foam, and you can’t see what you’re doing. If you don’t, you get dirty water in your eyes. In all of this, you have to be fast, not only because of the limited ‘hygiene window’, but also because you’ve got to coordinate your work pace with the worker cleaning the assembly lines area.
Around 6am, the manager comes down for an inspection. Everybody is afraid of him. He is usually not aggressive, but always criticizes our work in dismissive terms. The most critical part is cleaning the conveyor belts’ stainless steel rollers. I think the only reason is that this is where the test for bacteria is performed… Every morning, one of the red caps or even a permanent worker would rub a little test paper on the rollers, enclose it in a tube and scan it through a hand-held device. The result would be displayed as ‘pass’, ‘warning’, ‘fail’. You hardly ever see a ‘pass’ result. When we have a ‘fail’ result, we quickly sanitize the rollers again, but not perform the test again after sanitizing.
The time given per worker to clean the machines is way too little. But when you tell them, they don’t listen. I had a meeting with a manager once about this issue. He said there was plenty of time and showed me a colourful page with very detailed time studies of the job: every single operation had a time in minutes attached to it – which for him was proof that I should not have struggled to get everything done on time. There was no way to explain the truth at this point. But the truth is that reality is very different from the times studies. First of all, they do not include the intervals between operations (and cleaning has not been transformed into a taylorized sequence of steps, with the complete elimination of any gaps in between the repetitive movements – it still is a very ‘natural’ activity: you have to go get a hose, connect it to a leaking tap, deal with the nodes and folds that interrupt the water flow, etc.). Also, equipment is often missing and you’ve got to struggle to find it, which is also not taken into account in the time studies. Finally, the time studies might give the correct time for a very experienced worker (although I’m not even sure that those studies correspond to anything measured in reality), but they are certainly way off for a worker that has been assigned a new job without proper training.
This brings me to the subject of ‘training’. Well, despite the amount of paperwork apparently showing the opposite, there is no proper training. Once every two weeks or so, we are asked to stay in the laundry room at the beginning of the shift, and the manager gives us some ‘training’. This means he spends a maximum of five minutes telling us about the cleaning procedure for a piece of equipment most of us will never have seen (a machine, some pipes, etc.) and then makes sure we all sign the forms saying we’ve been trained to clean this piece of equipment. The form states that the training has been performed by the manager on the shop floor and lasted for half-an-hour – but it’s done in the laundry room, is purely verbal and lasts for five minutes. I refused to sign one at the beginning, as I did not even know what machine we were talking about.
Another day, we had a little ‘meeting’ where the manager told us that a fellow hygiene worker had lost two fingers while cleaning a machine with blades. As we did not hear about any such accident in the London factories, I asked the manager later on where this had happened – he told me it was in Spalding. We were advised to always use reinforced protective gloves (they are black, according to the picture, but I never saw them) when manipulating cutting parts of machinery. The manager told us that if we had such an accident we would become ‘a burden to society and to our families’! Nobody asked any question after his speech. I asked where were those gloves, and what parts of the equipment in the ready-meals section required their use. I was told the gloves were in the cupboard on the shop floor, but did not check. Later on during the night, the manager showed me the mash machine, telling me this was the only machine with cutting parts in our area, but I don’t think it’s true.
We also had meetings to tell us how bad our work was. One day, we were assembled in the laundry room at the beginning of the shift to learn about the results of an internal hygiene audit that had happened the night before (I did not notice it). We failed it, and the manager said we failed all such audits in the previous months. He made comments about our work being so easy. He said: ‘it’s not rocket science, I don’t understand why it can’t be done properly’. He humiliated a few workers in front of the others, individually complaining about their work. Nobody would ever say anything during those meetings. When he said that we were lazy and he could see us wandering around from 5am on, I said it was not true, we worked hard but the time was short. He said everything had been timed and we should have plenty of time – if not, ‘your priorities are wrong’ (he likes this expression a lot, apparently he thinks it ends all discussions on that matter). While management can tick in their files that you have been trained to do all jobs, it is actually the colleagues who train you. But they are too busy, and often don’t speak proper English. So you only learn half of what you are supposed to learn, but you don’t want to blame the colleagues for it.
The hard conditions (heavy and dirty job, working nights, harassment) bring a certain level of solidarity between us. Despite the tensions I have described most co-workers are friendly and willing to give good advice. There clearly is a bond created by the fact of being stuck together in hell… Also, the fact that we have a certain degree of freedom in organising our work and sharing tasks (at least during the first part of the night, when we clean the chillers) gives more importance to individual behaviour and personal bonds. Despite the necessary knowledge – how to dis-assemble machines for cleaning, the various chemicals to use when and where, the exact order of the procedure – we are paid the unskilled pay grade. There is a lot of discontent about this amongst the cleaners.
It would be very easy to organise a work to rule – once every worker actually knew what the rules are! Refuse to train new people if it is not in your contract. Don’t use other working material and tools that are not prescribed for the job – often the correct material is missing. Stick to the exact procedure and hygiene standards, even if time is running out. The problem is that if we stick to this, they will pick out cleaners one by one – or sack some (temp) workers for this or that reason in order to spread fear. We have to be prepared for that and respond together.