Mr, Cupcake at Craters of the Moon

Mr, Cupcake at Craters of the Moon
Mr. Cupcake at Craters of the Moon

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My day working in a sweat shop

I haven't worked for paid employment for most of the last year. I haven't wanted to seek paid employment because I was (hopefully) not going to be around for much longer, my immigration could come through at any moment. I don't want to lie or mislead a potential employer, so I have just avoided the whole thing by not working. Well, money is tight. We're in full-on spring now so I thought I would apply for work at some local greenhouses as temporary work.

In my last post, I was bemoaning the fact that neither of them had called me. Then, about an hour after my last post went live, I got the call from one of them. I went in to work at a greenhouse in View Royal as the "trying it out". There was no interview, just a phone conversation explaining that it's basically a plant factory, it's 8:00-4:30, Monday to Friday. It all sounded pretty straightforward. I went in the next morning. View Royal is about 40km from here, it took me 45 minutes to get there.

I went into the staff lunch room to put my lunch in the fridge. It was dark and dingy, very cave like, and there were some zombies sitting on the couches waiting to start work. Already this did not look very promising. No one said hello or good morning. The room was filthy, as if no one cares if it is kept clean.

At 8:00, everyone assembles on the main floor after they punch in. The supervisor checks to see who showed up for work, then assigns people for certain tasks. It's all very easy and monotonous, as it is a factory, but everyone does something different every day. At first I was put on the assembly line. There were some root-bound marigolds planted in half-inch cubes that needed to be transplanted into two-inch cubes. There was  a guy at the beginning of the line, his task was to put the plastic trays on the conveyor belt. The trays go through a machine that dumps potting material. When it comes out of the machine, two people on each side of the belt do the transplanting. I was only doing this for a minute or two when someone else showed up and I was moved on to the next task.

The next task was putting tags in the plants. The tags that you see in each plant at the box stores - like "geranium, full sun" etc. I was partnered with a woman who had been there only a month, and she was not at all talkative. It was so weird, already I was feeling like there is a culture of disposable employees here, where we are not encouraged to engage with each other for fear the Boss would come and whip us or something. Thousands of tags. The plants were at a good height for me, being tall, but the tables were so wide that I really did have to reach far to get the ones in the back - an ergonomic nightmare - and I wondered if WCB cared about that. Its seemed hypocritical that we were required to wear steel-toed boots but that no other health and safety precaution was taken. The machine I mentioned above kicked up a lot of peat dust, so it would make sense to me that the people working near that machine should be wearing dust masks or ventilators.

We finished putting the tags in the 4" flowers, then we were told to put tags in the tomatoes. The tomatoes were in trays on the floor of another greenhouse, and they were jam-packed in to a space about 12 feet deep - meaning that in order to get them all, the trays had to be pulled out so we could get to them as there were no walking spaces. That is a lot of leaning, squatting, and bending. There were two types of tomatoes that needed these tags, and I suggested to the gal I was working with that we coordinate as a team to make it go faster - as in one of us tag while the other of us moves the trays. Her response was strange: "They don't like that" - as in the Bosses don't like people to work together to make a process more efficient? It started feeling very creepy.

At some point in the morning, I think it was when we were tagging the flowers, the bell rang at 10:00 letting us all know that it was time for coffee break. It rang again at 10:15, time's up. The lunch bell rang at 12:00 and I was really starting to feel like herded sheep in elementary school. Nobody really talked to each other in the lunch room. There was a fridge, a microwave and a kettle but no dishes. I brought lunch but forgot to bring a fork, so I ate my tortellini with my fingers.

The staff bathroom was disgusting too. It takes a lot to gross me out, I have used public toilets and squatted over holes in southeast Asia after all. But the fish plant bathrooms in Uculelet were cleaner than this one. Did no one take pride in this place? The owners lived on the property where the greenhouse is. It was as if to say "you little peons don't deserve to have a clean staff area".  It was really disheartening, especially since I am so unused to being treated poorly as an employee.

Already by mid-day I wasn't sure if I was going to stick around. On the one hand, it's physical work that would build my muscle and help me lose weight, would make time go fast even though I wouldn't make very much money (the low wage coupled with the cost of my commute would mean that I would earn less than $6/hour), and it was only temporary. I like plants. And sometimes when a job doesn't pay very much there are perks (like when I worked at Tim Horton's, I got free coffee and donuts and half price off food). After just a few hours there I got the sense that I would not at all be allowed to take home a tray of lettuce starts. That's profit, after all.

There were three supervisors and about 12-15 workers. There were two owners that I noticed, one of them had his to beautiful but sad dogs following him around (chocolate labs? But they were pale brown. I don't know my dog breeds). Not a smile, no interest in meeting new staff, only interacted with the supervisors in a you're-not-good-enough condescending tone. Another owner was barking at some of the workers for not doing their task fast enough. The workplace culture was absolutely stifling and only one person, the person who called me in, seemed to enjoy her job, as she was the only person who smiled. I felt suffocated.

In the afternoon I was put to a task of cleaning of a recently-emptied table and then restocking it with geraniums. That seemed a bit more interesting. Then I was asked to help one of the supervisors with filling orders. That involves moving these heavy plant carts to different greenhouses, sometimes up hills, sometimes on poor-quality concrete which makes wheely carts difficult to maneuver, and put the trays on them there. We picked through the trays and baskets that looked the best, dead-headed the flowers and pulled off the yellow leaves. I am not a stranger to pushing/pulling heavy carts, sometimes the library trucks would have hundreds of pounds of books on them, but they at least had a good flat surface with no hills to roll on.

When the bell rang at 4:30, I was not able to leave just then because we hadn't finished filling the order we were working on. The truck driver that was waiting for this last order was barking at the supervisor saying that the cilantro is unacceptable and that we don't have time to wait for the baskets, these plants here were supposed to be the 4-packs not the 6-packs. What gave him the right to treat another person so awfully?

Eventually I was let to go at 4:45 and I had, for some reason said "yes" when they asked if I would come back the next day. I took off my boots when I got in my truck, I was already exhausted, and I wondered just what the hell I had gotten myself into. I might have even been in shock. It's a good thing I knew the drive home so well, because I am pretty sure I was on autopilot. My leg muscles had already started screaming from all the reaching, leaning and squatting.

I struggled all evening with whether to continue with this job. Finally I decided no, it was not worth my time to go into that toxic work place. After all, I have spent the past several months healing, I wouldn't want all that effort to go to waste for a throwaway job. I emailed the woman who hired me and simply explained that it was not for me. She emailed back the next day, understanding but disappointed, noting my good work ethic. I thought - okay - I'll be honest. I said it's not the work itself that bothers me but the workplace culture and the negative attitude of the owners to the staff. She replied, was appreciative for this kind of feedback, as it was one of her tasks as manager to make improvements on this level. 

Over the past few months, I had been asking my oracle, my pendulum, several times if I should be seeking paid employment. Pendulum consistently said "NO". I was pushed to desperation, sought work after all, and it was as if the Universe said "fine! You want a job? Here is a job." It only took me that one memorable day to comprehend this message.

It took me two days to recover from this job. I wasn't all that sore physically the next day or day after, but it was recovering from being in a toxic work environment. I am very sensitive, you see, I seem to absorb the nervous and negative energies of a place without wishing it or realizing it. It made me think a lot about work - and I even started making a list of things I would like to have in my dream job. My goal is 200 things, I'm up to 40-something just now (I got busy doing other things). 

So now I know. I will be sure to never buy plant starts from big box stores, knowing the human cost of those plants, and how there is absolutely no love given to them in a factory-like setting. It also convinced me that I will make every effort to buy my seeds from local producers who take pride in their work, and not from commercial outfits. It was a big day of learning indeed.

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