Tales from working life — Just Another Day
by Justin Naylor "That's tri-acid — don't let that get on you. You won't feel it burn but it'll go through your skin looking for the calcium in your bones." Did he just say what I think he said? I stood straining to hear the various warnings and instructions given to new workers by John in the chroming plant at an aluminium foundry in Adelaide's western suburbs. I could barely make out the stream of information coming my way above the noise from overhead cranes dunking wheels and other components into big vats of seething, bubbling chemicals lined up down both sides of the long corrugated iron shed. "Be sure that you communicate with the bloke alongside you when you lift the yolk out of this bath. If it combines with the liquid in the one beside it, you'll get a cyanide gas and probably kill the people in the near vicinity." I don't believe this. How did I manage to become part of this horrible Dickensian scene? "Oh, and this is the chrome. It's a carcinogen. If it lands on you and we wash you thoroughly enough, you'll be OK. There's a shower and eye washer over there. I look toward a piece of old corroded equipment nestled among the heaving great vats of chemicals. An accident would be a very public affair, I noted. "Anyway, these splashes don't happen very often. Once in a while a component will fall out of its yolk but you'd have to be pretty unlucky", John chimed in, shattering the mental picture I had of some poor soul being dowsed so that some chemical or another would stop eating him. Later, the very first person I spoke to had been splashed with chrome on his neck within a week of getting to the plant. This cast some doubt on the reassurance that accidents were pretty infrequent. But back to the question of how I'd got into this situation in the first place: I'd put my name down with a labour hire firm about a month before when a friend told me that some jobs were coming up at an automotive components factory down south. I still only had a part time job delivering cakes for a local bakery paying $312 gross per week for 24 hours' work. So I went down to the labour hire company's offices with high hopes, thinking that I had something akin to insider information. I was deflated a little when I was ushered into a room with another batch of about a dozen hopefuls. We were told to start filling in a pile of very nosey forms about a centimetre thick while Michelle got our manual dexterity test ready. She came back and gave us a colour blindness test, which I flunked hopelessly. Shit and shit again. My annoyance nearly broke my concentration for the job of piecing together a little plastic gismo containing electric motors and felt gaskets. Still, I exceeded the minimum of fourteen units completed in ten minutes. I left the office a little worried that my colour blindness would exclude me from manufacturing jobs when there are so many absolutely able-bodied people banging on the door. I'm not exactly young any more, either. Imagine my surprise when Matthew from the labour hire mob rang three weeks later to offer me a start at the foundry at 7.30 the next morning. I told him I would still be on my cake run. I start that at 4.30 in the morning and wouldn't be back until way after the start of the shift in the chroming plant. Even though I was a casual, I felt I would have to give some sort of notice to the new owners of the bakery. Oh well. Later that day I got another phone call from Matthew. How about working the afternoon shift? It starts at 3.30 in the afternoon and knocks off at 11pm. It involves a 40-hour week at $17 an hour instead of the $13 on offer for the day shift. "How about it", he asked. "It's a bit fumy and the work can be a bit heavy and dirty." "I'm not scared of hard work and I've worked at some filthy jobs", I replied. "Where do I go?" "Just present yourself to security at the gate and ask them to page John from the chroming plant. Wear a long sleave shirt, long pants — no tracksuit pants — and steel capped boots. You've got a pair of those?" "Sure I have," I lied. The next day, I presented myself to the guys in the little zincalum building near the gate. My initial impressions were negative. I thought this place was a big employer that might be able to offer good conditions out of its big profits. It's got a big contract to supply components to an American company. It had recently been given a big cash injection from the State Government to keep doing what it does so well. It's certainly a big employer, but the complex of battered corrugated iron buildings and grimy walkways boded badly. The workers leaving the day shift in the almost uniform heavy blue drill work clothes made it look like a jail. While I was waiting for John, a procession of job hunters came up asking in broken English where they could find Rebecca from recruitment. They were nearly all Middle Eastern, African, central and south Asian blokes. Desperate, skinny blokes that looked as poor as church mice. One of them had hateful looking, cheap gum boots on. He must have been trying to pass them off as steel caps. I drifted off onto all sorts of lines of thinking when I looked down and compared them to my shiny, new $70 Blundstones. John was quite a while coming so I had time to talk to the older security guard. He seemed a nice old guy. "Where did you park your car?" he asked. "I had to park it two blocks away in front of someone's house. The car parks were full." "You might like to move it during your dinner break. When the day shift people leave you'll find a spot. A lot of people have had things pinched out of their cars when they're parked outside. You only get a 20-minute break but you get paid for it. Nobody complains about the pay around here." I thought I'd try another topic. I told him I was lucky to be getting a start through a strange sequence of events. I originally put myself in touch with the labour hire company because a lot of people were sacked from their jobs at a car part factory for failing drug tests. That's how I got on the books. I added that I was sorry for the people that lost their jobs but, then again, I don't think it's good for drug-affected workers to be using dangerous equipment. The atmosphere in the hut became serious. "You might like to keep your attitude on drugs a bit private, mate. There's a lot of Gypsy Joker bikie sort of blokes working here that might not appreciate it." I was a bit stunned but managed to get out a "Thanks for the advice, mate." Finally, John arrived to take me to where the chroming was done. We passed dark halls where guys stood at big buffing belts, wrestling large components to achieve a high polish. They were covered head to foot in the grey powder coming off the belts. They had plastic suits, masks and goggles on. I marvelled at how they withstood the heat and how long they had to stand and carry on this struggle. Trucks carrying sand disappeared into other huge dusty structures and everywhere there were forklifts carrying cast pieces with the dag still hanging off them. John showed me the facilities, such as they were. A big dingy hall served as a canteen. A few dispensing machines with expensive sandwiches stood beside the ubiquitous Coke machine. The Asian blokes looked to be the best organised. They brought tiffins with curry and rice. My guide-cum-supervisor finished my orientation in a little office with a computer and some samples of chemicals. He ticked off the things he was obliged to tell me on a yellow form. Told inductee about smoking policy? A box got a tick. Warned about chemical hazard — tick again. Informed him about union representative? "Those blokes are around". Another tick went on the list. My notion that a big workplace like this would have to be organised suddenly looked shaky. I was then handed over to Andrew to learn the first of my jobs. I'll have to mask the centres of the wheels with nylon blocks so they don't take the chrome in the baths. I'll then have to put them in yolks and stands ready for another bloke to pick them up with the crane operated by a clumsy looking remote on a long chain. I was doing well and I started to imagine that it might all work out. I asked Andrew what the chances were of getting permanent work. "None. They sack you before you've been here six months so they don't have to offer you permanency." "How long have you been here?" "A month. If you keep your head down, Matthew will probably get you other work." At dinner I sit with a young sandy haired bloke. Sure enough, he'd also been brought in by a labour hire company and held no hope of staying more than a few months. He was on a lucky streak, though. He had just finished doing some labouring on the Alice Springs to Darwin Railway. Hot hard work, he told me. "This is much better. The money's good, too." I had only finished half a shift and I was already wondering whether $700 gross was as good as a lot of these guys reckoned. Back in the long shed, I continued the endless routine of mounting wheels and hubs, checking them for scratches and cracks as I go. Fred is a supervisor who strolls up and down all night with his head up in the air and his hands behind his back. He would stand right behind you, checking what you were doing. It was slightly unnerving and I'm sure it showed on me. He, on the other hand, remained almost inscrutable behind his sunglasses. I was doing well for my first night, though, Andrew later volunteered. Every now and then, the big door at the end would slide back and a group of people would stand gaping into our now gloomily lit workshop. A haze hovered over us as the vapours from the vats became too much for the ventilation system. They were there as guests, mostly residents concerned at the presence of the huge complex in their neighbourhood, I was told. They were at a level such that only their head appeared above floor level. Some shiny new wheels (worth around $2,500 a pop) were placed in their line of sight. I wondered what their impressions might be. Could they see anything? Would they be reassured by what they saw? I also wondered what this little guy was doing with what looked like a tray of drinks in plastic cups. He got the murky looking cordial from the heated tubs, though. I presumed he was taking the samples out to John so that he could check the proportions of different chemicals. Andrew — my indefatigable workmate and trainer — had no suggestions and apparently no interest in what the whole process involved. He kept his kitchen gloves on and was wary of the vats that might kill you but beyond that, nothing. As the front of my shirt started to drip with yellow liquid, I began to feel a little unsafe. We worked right up to the hooter. Don't even think about bundying off and leaving even a minute early or half an hour might be docked from your pay. I walked out with Andrew with some pride that I'd learned so much and impressed the others by keeping up. I also doubted that I could keep this worrying work up. I was exhausted and I knew that I would have to be at the bakery again at 4.30 the next morning. I would have to take a shower and get to bed, hopefully before midnight. I knew I couldn't keep both jobs. If I stayed at the foundry, the delivery job would have to go. I'd told the bakery boss what I was doing and he wanted me to stay another week until I decided which job I was keeping so that he could have time to find a new driver. I gave into this request at the time but now I wondered how I could possibly deliver on my promise. The next morning I went to the bakery and joined the other drivers and packers in doing what we do. I knew that most of my workmates worked this job and another one or two at the going rate of $11 or $12 an hour in order to secure a modest lifestyle. They are permanently tired. They have precious little weekend. They make silly mistakes out of tiredness and boredom. They resist all my attempts to get them to join the Misso's [Miscellaneous workers] union. In the van I started to feel comfortable and a bit privileged. The only hazards I faced were back strain, possible traffic accidents and fumes. I suddenly thought that it must be possible to organise with the foundry workers around workplace hazards. They are the easiest issues to get agreement around. You don't have to argue about the "right" of the bosses to scoop off the proceeds of the workers' efforts and other topics where the bosses have forward defences inside workers' heads. I'll go back! The next instant I had doubts. I began to think that I could actually die or at least be exposed to things that could undermine my health longer term. This latter conclusion seemed pretty reasonable. I rang my wife on my mobile and asked her what she thought. I was hoping she 'd agree that we ought to pass up the $700 gross pay packet from the foundry and hang out for something better. I knew she would agree — we're not that hard up! Some of the dreams we had just the day before yesterday were out the window, though. I rang Matthew at the labour hire outfit and told him frankly that I couldn' t go back because I thought the job was too risky. I was relieved when he told me that it's OK. I'd given him time to find someone else for the next "afternoon" shift and that he understood my concerns. So, I'm still driving the van. Like everybody else at the bakery, I hope for something better where I could get more sleep. A government job is everyone' s ideal, like the one a former driver, Cliff, managed to get at the Housing Trust with his electrician's skills. Or Carmen who is now a hospital orderly with good wages, sick leave, recreation leave, everything! A lot of Australians (and Americans and Italians and Brits.) live like this. More and more of us work bits and pieces of casual work and/or stints of contract work. It seems that at the same time as our conditions deteriorate, the forces like the unions are in a sort of hibernation for want of support and an injection of that "have a go" spirit. How much longer do we have to wait?