Think they have it easy? The next time you buy golden apples or sweet strawberries from your local supermarket think of the desperate people working 12-hour days for a meagre £6.45 an hour
‘STOP THE LINE!’
Everyone freezes. There would be silence but for the rattling conveyor belts, the sucking air conditioning, the whirr of fluorescent lights. Magdalena moves through the workers, her face dangerously still. The rotating sorting table of line three is piled high with bags of apples and one pulls loose and falls to the floor with a soft thud. The small man with the crumpled face continues packing the bags into boxes with his head down. Magdalena picks up the fallen bag and slams it into the box in front of him.
‘Why do you not work faster?! Why?’
She snakes her head, so he is forced to look at her. She is short and blonde and her large brown eyes do not contain a trace of humour. The man half shrugs:
Her husky voice cracks:
‘NO because. Just do it’.
There is no way he can keep up. He can clear the table while the line is stopped but when they hit the button again there will still be seven people mindlessly stuffing apples into bags and the pile will begin to grow again. But he stays quiet. Magdalena turns and is gone.
Maria, the line leader, leans over and turns the line back on, giving the man a disgusted look. The machinery jolts into life and as the apples begin their relentless journey towards him, the man swears quietly in Polish. Maria whips around, eyes wide, body bent over with a lethal force advancing on him as she shrieks:
‘YOU. WILL. PACK. FASTER’.
She’s Romanian but she understands the tone of insubordination and will not tolerate it. You can tell she’s line leader because she wears a red hat over her hair net, and a blue coat. Magdalena is a supervisor because she is white hat/red coat. You see the occasional white hat/green coat, who seem to be quality control officers. The rest of us are just blue cap/blue coat.
On your first day in the factory no one explains this hierarchy or how it operates. In fact, no one explains anything at all. Out on the floor you are shoved in the direction of a line, a bagging machine, a pallet of boxes. There are no instructions. There is no time. You just put your head down and do what the blue coat next to you is doing and all other knowledge will be acquired through verbal abuse. Don’t know what weight of strawberries goes in a punnet? Can’t find the empty pallets or the bubble wrap? Just stop packing for a moment and soon the answer you seek will be screamed in your face.
It’s not that the work is difficult; on the contrary, it is incomprehensibly repetitive and mechanical. But it is drudgery under duress. Apparently there can never be enough fruit to satisfy the cavernous warehouses of ASDA, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s and the supervisors scream and swear like drill sergeants. It is still late summer and, in the orchards outside the factory, the apples are small and bitter – but we are packing fruit from New Zealand and South Africa. An endless flood of fruit. It’s disgusting.
‘It’s not so bad’, says the thickset Czech next to me. ‘Next job after this I do turkeys. They go to America for Christmas and Thanksgiving – I will electrocute a hundred and fifty thousand a day’.
This man’s name is Mikula. When the red coats are out of sight he sings tunelessly as he works. He is short, with thick black hair on his thick arms. He grins wickedly:
‘It might sound strange coming out of my mouth, but I’m sick of bloody foreigners, mate’.
There is an obscurely threatening sign tacked up outside the office:
SPEAK ENGLISH FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY
Like most factories in south-east England, the majority of workers here are Eastern European. Polish, Romanian, Latvian, Hungarian. Most of the red-coated supervisors are Lithuanian and they speak Russian amongst each other like a secret code. Magdalena, the company attack dog, is Polish and so is the only male supervisor, Lucas. He has curling tattoos and a rat’s tail and continuously walks the perimeter as if he has some other, more illicit business to attend to.
Many of the workers are highly educated – qualified doctors or lawyers – but they come to the UK to earn some easy money. Of course, easy money is a relative term. They not only have to leave their homes but often their families behind as well. For £6.45 an hour they work like machines for twelve hours or more, under an endless tirade of verbal abuse designed to keep them at maximum productivity. That is, if they’re lucky: on the farms they are often paid by the bucket or row and with a bad crop you have to work sixteen hours or more to make forty or fifty pounds. Many of the workers here pay to stay in musty caravans on site, and will barely leave the factory at all.
When I ask Mikula what he thinks of English people he cackles:
‘I would love to meet some. I have been here for nearly two years and I have hardly spoken to any. Some English work here but they never last more than one week. I think they must be f***ing lazy’.
It is well known that there is little enjoyment in factory work, but it is difficult to appreciate just how mentally and physically draining it can be unless you’re doing it. As a temporary experience, this can be character-building but for too many of these workers this situation is life. It does not take long before your respect for a tough work ethic turns to disgust for the people who are exploiting these migrants.
Of course English people aren’t lazy, it’s just that there is no reason for them to put up with such terrible conditions. Months after quitting, I still cannot think of one satisfactory reason why the Eastern Europeans should have to either.
‘Life is not fair’, says Mikula, as we drink beers by the river after work. ‘I guess I’m starting to get used to that’.