Some thoughts from the factory floor
Recently I've had to go back to factory work, and on agency too. It's not great, but it's not terrible. It's been a few years since I've been on a factory floor, though not much has changed except that there are bits of clear plastic attached to some lines at average head height. Part of the COVID response, it was that, and posters everywhere telling everyone to maintain a two-meter distance. Of course, being a company policy, some of those posters are stuck in parts of the building where that is physically impossible.
As agency and a new hire, I've been moved about quite a bit filling a short fall, so my roles are quite different. Fast lines can be a nightmare, but I've been several slower lines, which has allowed me time to think. You can't talk much in the production areas, there's too much noise and everyone's wearing ear defenders, though there is a sort of informal factory language that combines gestures with words that you pick up. So outside of breaks, even if you're two centimetres away from like six other people on all sides, you're largely on your own.
On one shift I was at the end of a line that moved relatively slowly, and I was right next to a clock, so distractions over time anxieties weren't an issue. There were two other workers on the next station, and the line supervisor would walk up and down the line occasionally, but it was just me and thoughts until clocking off time. I've come to the conclusion that working on a line in a factory is an excellent primer on how the economic system works. Most of your labour is occupied on confusing tasks that seem wasteful (but not in the way that most people understand the term) and you're dependent on the actions of other people whom you can't see because there's a machine in the middle of the line, or the line starts in another room and gets to you through a hole in the wall. And the whole design of the machinery and organisation of the system was done by experts of one stripe or another who haven't been on a factory floor in years.
The, routine has become so rationalised, compartmentalised and automated, you are isolated from all decision-making and even collaboration with those physical rubbing shoulders with you. The work gear, the overalls, ear plugs, hair nets etc, further reinforce a uniformity and place barriers between you. Even the ones in positions of responsibility know only a fraction more than day one hires. They know how to switch the machines on, and how each station can best do each task down the line, but ask them the why and what for? And they don't have a clue.
The pay is poor as well. Most people in society except this as a given and perfectly alright, as the work has been structured in such a way that the vast majority of the human population can do at least some tasks. I won't argue that the barrier to entry is very low, it's the workforce with the highest number of disabled and English as a second language composition I've ever encountered. But the argument doesn't really hold water to me.
It may be "accessible" for want of a better word, but it's also one of the parts of the labour and supply chain where exploitation is at its most extreme. To go back to that line, I was stacking boxes onto pallets. Each box contained six packages, and there were seventy boxes to a pallet, and I'd stacked five and a half pallets by the time the shift ended. I won't say what the packages were for security reasons, but I have seen them for sale in shops, and they retail for between £1-2+. Now I know that the producer doesn't get every penny from a sale, there's a line of entities taking a cut, so let's say for simplicity’s sake the company gets £1 per package, it's probably a bit less, but it's a nice round number.
Me putting seven boxes down onto a pallet covered my wage bill for that day. Now I know businesses have more costs than just wage bills, there's material costs, the hiring, leasing and buying of machinery, paying business rates, maintenance, tax, wastage costs, fees for services like advertising and registration etc. And I can't find out what the costs actually are without raising a lot of questions about me with the company. But given the size of the place and its workforce and how long it operates per day, I'd estimate that each employee doing say half a pallets worth or their equivalent would cover all of that, and the rest is just profit. Each box after number eight that I stacked on that pallet and all the labour that went into putting that box in my hand was profit for the company.
And the kicker is that the way this works, what's on paper as being better for the worker, longer shifts for more wages, just magnifies the gains of the employer. If everything was going smoothly, it took about twenty-five minutes to half an hour to fill a pallet, and that was a slower line. I've been on some lines that moved so fast I'd be driven mad trying to calculate at which point the profit bar had been passed.
I've not worked in retail or fast food, but I've interviewed for both and have friends who have worked in them, and I recognize quite a bit of the same dynamics from the factory floor. I think just one big shop covers the day's pay of a checkout worker. I'm not surprised that there has been growing activism and labour militancy over increasing the minimum wage, spearheaded by workers in these sectors.
Increasing base rate of pay won't alter the dynamics of this economy, but this also means that I don't really see any credibility in counterarguments to wage increases. The big two are social, there's a lot of people out there who look down on people who make minimum wage, and so any measures to raise their standing in proportion to others is treated as a threat. This attitude hampers all sorts of labour organising, when ever a trade union strikes for higher pay and conditions the usual line from the reactionaries of society is to pick another group of workers that seems hard done by and then turn around and accuse the picketers of callousness as if they were somehow to blame. Or when several unions get together and organise a sector wide strike, especially if they're representing public sector workers, the press is full of false sympathy for struggling private sector workers. I am seriously curious to see what the argument will be if a truly general strike of all workers was organised, who would be singled out for crocodile tears then?
And the other is inflation fears. But while I've seen many statements and articles worried about inflation, I haven't seen any that bother to make the case for how and why wage increases would cause inflation. Inflation in the UK has been going up for years regardless of the wage level of the minimum, and already the profit margins companies extract from their workforces are so vast that even the most radical wage increase demands don't noticeably cut into that. At most, wage increases would add a box or two of labour to the scale.
This was where my thoughts went until the line was wound up for quitting time.