Two weeks in the Hewlett Packard packaging plant

An agency worker describes working life in a German Hewlett-Packard packaging plant in 2005.

Submitted by Steven. on January 8, 2010

Monet in the Duisburg Docklands

Hewlett Packard has recently been in the public spotlight due to its management’s announcement to dismiss several thousands of workers in Europe and because of the resulting strike of HP employees in France.

What follows is a report on the work situation in HPs central packaging plant for printer cartridges in Duisburg, which is run more or less entirely by subcontractors. The report reflects a two weeks stay in the plant and can be read as a call to confront the rather abstract and often ideological debate on precarious work with a discussion based on concrete experiences and (small-scale) inquiries...

Looking for Work

For Germany we can say that in addition to the reformed unemployment benefit scheme (Hartz IV), which standardised the level of benefit after one year of unemployment, there is another recently standardised level of income for proletarians: the wages for temp workers according to the collective contract. During the last years this contract was negotiated between the unions and most of the bigger temp agencies. It doesn’t matter if the job is to assemble mobile phones at BenQ in Kamp-Lintfort (see ppnews #3) or car seats for General Motors in Bochum, the wage level for unskilled work is 7.02 Euros/hour (before taxes). For skilled work, e.g. mechanic or electrician jobs, you get 8.92 Euros/hour and sometimes 1 Euro bonus or ‘food money’. At least in the area around Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Cologne you will hardly find an electrician job within the industry which is not mediated through a temp agency. The (skilled) workers I met during the job search and at work said that the collective contract lowered the general wage level. If you don’t mind the wages and conditions there are plenty of jobs available (at least in this region, for job seekers of medium age and qualification): Siemens/BenQ hires lots of people via several temp agencies, at the same time as announcing dismissals of ‘their own’ workers. A temp-agency in Krefeld wants to hire 200 people for the mobile phone plant, in both Düsseldorf and Duisburg they are hiring at least 25 each. The general gateway for all temps is the test of manual capabilities organised by Siemens. A temp-agency guy in Duisburg told me that he can’t give me the job, because the wages are too low. If I had to drive the way from Düsseldorf to Kamp-Lintfort, which is about 70 kilometers, I would have to spend 350 Euros per month on petrol. The wage at Siemens (40-hours week, night-and day-shifts) would amount to 820 Euros after taxes. You wouldn’t be able to afford to work, although the distance of 70 kilometeres is ‘reasonable’ according to the Hartz IV dole-regulations: formally you would be obliged to accept the job. The same is true for jobs at the Nokia plant in Bochum and a lot of jobs in the car part supplying industry around Velbert/Heiligenhausen. The job ads often already exclude people who don’t live in the direct catchment area. The limit to which workers are able to pay an extra part of their wages on travel costs is reached, their demanded job mobility is fucked up by the petrol prices...

The Hewlett Packard Packaging Plant in Duisburg

The first hurdle when starting the job was to understand who is who and who owns what. The huge complex of storage halls belongs to Kühne & Nagel, a global transport, logistics and ‘supply-chain service’ company. The machine workers and fork lift drivers are employed by Kühne & Nagel, as well, or by Dekra temp agency. The machines and packaging lines belong to HP. The workers who maintain and repair the machines (officially and in the following called ‘skilled workers’, although the concept is a rather capitalist/fetishised one) are hired by HSG and Personal AG temp agency. HSG is a facility management and service company with about 4,500 employees in Germany. Amongst others they organise the facility management (security, general maintenance of the buildings) for Citibank in Duisburg and various train stations. HSG was a subsidiary of the construction company Philip Holzmann, but after the bankruptcy of Holzmann it was bought by the construction firm Bilfinger und Berger. Apart from the electricians and mechanics of HSG there are also specialist from various machine constructing companies (Jones, Schubert, Koch) running around on the shop floor. They come for temporary visits in order to solve special problems of ‘their’ machines.

Some of them are sent from the USA, most of them from the south of Germany. Hewlett Packard has their own engineers, who come for visits mainly in order to check the precarious administration software system (PAMA) responsible for the control and tracking of the whereabouts of each single printer cartridge. Their main problem consists in reconciling and interlinking their admin software with the various production softwares of the different packaging machines.

The whole complex and all the different people are brought together and to the brink of nervous collapse by five more or less completely automated packing lines, composed by quite modern robots, different conveyor belt systems, machines for plastic and carton packaging and stupid names (Lava, Monet, Moneypenny). The lines are meant to run on-line, meaning that ideally HP people in the USA could follow the packaging progress, can check and theoretically change certain machine settings and get an overview of recorded production mistakes. The lines are also meant to run on-demand, meaning that they package cartridges after they have been ordered. Actually everyone, or at least the HP management, is quite happy if the machine’s maximum capacity is utilised by 50 percent, which depends rather on the (technical) production process than on the customer’s wish. On each line they have easily noticeable computer monitors with different graphs and stats and colours, indicating the momentary efficiency of machines and workers. Each line can theoretically package 100,000 to 200,000 printer-cartridges of different types per shift. I couldn’t find out how expensive the machines were. A robot-station at the head of one line, only picking up bulk-trays from pallets, putting them on a belt, was supposed to be worth 150,000 Euros. The work could have been done by two workers at the same speed. On each line and shift work four to five women, there are two fore(wo)men for the machine workers. There are two to three skilled workers per shift taking care of the machines. Their main job is to get rid of production flaws, but sometimes they also have to supply machines with material (heavy coils of plastic foil etc.). The cartridges are produced in Singapore, Puerto Rico and Ireland. In Duisburg they are packaged for the European, Russian and African market. Kühne & Nagel is said to get 7 cents per packed cartridge. There is another smaller packaging plant in Amersfoort, Holland, but the main storage depot and the most modern lines are supposed to be in Duisburg. The plant has exisited since 2000 and has expanded since then. The plant runs two shifts, night- and weekend shifts only happen in exceptional circumstances. The machine workers who are directly employed get about 10 to 11 Euros (before tax) per hour, but only 20 to 30 per cent of all women have a permanent contract with Kühne & Nagel. At the moment people are only hired via temp agencies. Their wage is about 6 to 7 Euros. The turn-over of staff is extremely high, due to often arbitrary seeming management decisions and the frustration of the workers themselves who aren’t granted a real training period and who therefore often don’t cope with the work stress. It’s a similar situation for the 20 fork-lift drivers. A work-mate told me that about 100 drivers were herded through the company during the last two years. The machine workers are between 20 to 50 years old, of German-Turkish-Polish origin. Most of the women are divorced and/or single-mothers, so their wage is not an additional income. Some of them have a second job, meaning that after their shift they work in a shop, in a solarium or as cleaners, which adds up to a 60 hours week. The skilled workers get about 15 Euros/hour (before tax), for most of them that is less than they earned in their previous job. The skilled workers hired by the temp agency get about 9.50 Euros. HSG is not part of a collective agreement with the unions. Most of the work contracts are individually negotiated. Officially the skilled workers have the status of employees, meaning that they get a fixed monthly wage which leads to the fact that over-time is often not paid for or that people are sent on home ‘over-time holiday’ if there isn’t that much to do.

The main work of the maintenance workers, but to a certain extend also of the machine workers themselves, is evolving around the flaws of machines and products. It is rare that a machine is running for more then 5 minutes without an interruption due to flaws. The more or less complex packaging process (punching, folding, sealing, labeling etc.) and the flexible material (cardboard, plastik foil) are not made for the high speed, so the whole process gives the impression of a (rat) race of high speed making up of the time lost due to stoppage due to flaws due to high speed. The fragility is aggravated by untrained and over-burdened workers and the control-mania of HP to bar-code scan each single cartridge at each completed work-step. Often the lines get hick-ups because the production software has communicative problems with the admin-software. Therefore one of the main tasks of the machine workers (besides the re-filling of the different stations with cardboard-boxes, labels, foil) is to re-work the faulty products. If there isn’t any total machine collapse the women have no breaks during their work, apart from the official ones. Some of the machines are very noisy and the work-stations are several meters away from each other, so often there is no chance for a chat during work-time. The maintenance workers are called once a machine worker can’t solve the problem herself. The relationship between machine worker and maintenance worker is a contradictive one, in this case additionally shaped by the gender division. The maintenance workers solve problems, they get the machine going again and often blame the alleged technical incompetence of the machine workers for the flaws. The machine workers aren’t given any tools or technical information, apart from the ones necessary to operate the machines. On one hand the flaws cause the only additional breaks for them, on the other hand they feel their foremen and the demanded numbers of packed cartridges at their backs. They sometimes make jokes during the smoke breaks that they ‘already killed two lines today’. They often blame the slow maintenance workers for delays, or the awkward new work-mates. The maintenance workers are caught between the front-lines of the battle over responsibility, competences, decision-making waged by the management of HSG, Kühne & Nagel and HP. New maintenance workers are only hired by temp agencies although it is clear right from the start that they would have to work there for about a year in order to be fully effective and profitable for the company. New employees don’t get time to get familiar with the machines, they are expected to work right on their first day, although everyone admits that it takes at least half a year to know the machinery well enough in order to work independently. Stress and low wages cause a high turn-over of maintenance workers as well.

The union is only officially present at Kühne & Nagel, they have a dull notice board. The works council was formed by some engineers who feared their dismissal and who thought that by getting elected as a works council member they would have more job security for themselves. One of them is a hated foreman. I haven’t heard of any past collective conflicts in the plant. People didn’t know about the strikes at HP in France and they didn’t feel too threatened by HPs plans to sack workers. There weren’t many discussions about the recent German elections, only sarcastic and gloating comments on the post-ballot chaos. HartzIV is a topic, of course. People blame the reforms for having to keep the job or for having had to take it. Apart from the old work-mates everyone in the maintenance crew talks about quitting the job, some are actively seeking an alternative employment.

The most impressive character and revelation of the job was to see how HP tries to make all kinds of different companies (officially all ‘service companies’) and (artificially) divided workers cooperate by keeping the control over fairly modern and expensive machinery. They are able to bring together former miners from the Ruhr area, IT specialists from the US, proletarians (ex-) Polish women from Duisburg’s run-down areas and Turkish students. Despite all the problems and across all the barriers of subcontracts and out-sourcing, HP manages to get a fair share of its world demand of printer cartridges packaged by two dozen women and their fork-lift driving friends in some rented concrete halls in the Duisburg docklands. The significance of these ‘fordist’ central depots has recently shown up during the strike at the central storage of H&P in France and the conflict at the Tesco depot in Ireland, where young workers knew how to make use of their central position...

[prol-position news #4, 12/2005]