Monday, 22 June 2020

Meat processing and the virus

April 2020

I am frightened. I am ashamed to say that. I am frightened of the virus but I am ashamed to admit that financially things are very precarious for me and my family. I know exactly how long we can have a roof over our head and food to eat without an income and it's shorter than I expect things to take to get back to normal. 

As I and they weren't working on the magic date of 28th February 2020, over 90% of the film industry like me doesn't qualify for the government furlough scheme. About 150,000 people in film and tv who generate £17 billion a year for the UK economy are caught in the PAYE freelancer trap as neither salaried workers or self-employed. 

Many people are in similar straights to me. Rather than furlough them, Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin told his 40,000 employees to apply to Tesco. Like many, I did that too and all the other supermarkets but despite years of customer-facing experience and knowledge of logistics and an MBA to boot, Tesco replied they "wouldn't be processing my application at this time..." I wasn't a comedian with a twitter following either who could convince Iceland to take me on just for the PR win. 

Back when this crisis started my hottest job prospect was gearing up for nine months shooting on a television series from mid-March. On that kind of show I could work more hours than the typical office employee does in a year - and pay tax on that as well. That opportunity of course vanished. I found out Job Seekers Allowance only pays £73.10 per week.

I contacted an employment agency and was offered work in a poultry processing factory at minimum wage. With no other choice I have taken it. You might be able to guess who it is. Although it's a century later Upton Sinclair would still recognise the place. 

When people asked me "what do you do on set?" I used to make a joke that "I'm here to put the knot in the sausage." Well, now I've actually done that. In reality a huge and temperamental machine does it and like sausages the process has many links in a chain. It is very different to making movies but there's a lot to learn from making sausages and I think a lot that film-making methods could teach factory managers. Film-making is best described in the terms of management theorist Henry Mintzberg as an 'adhocracy'. Poultry processing is the epitome of Mintzberg's 'machine bureaucracy'. 

To make 1,000 sausages an hour, firstly half a ton of mincemeat in a stainless steel vat is hoisted up and tipped into a hopper and is sucked down by a vicious screw conveyor which pushes the mince into a 15 metre tube of collagen casing concertinaed over a metre long tube like a massive condom. The meat is pushed inside the tube and as it fills the casing, the sausage is twisted one way and then pulled forward by rubber bands and then twisted the other way to make a string. After eight sausages a blade chops the string off and it falls onto a moving belt. When the casing is finished, it is replaced like a revolver by another one on a turret. The sausages fall onto a conveyor where nimble hands, mostly women, pinch the string in the middle to fold the sausages into four and twist and turn the two strands into two layers of four. Then, because they are cheaper than a machine I was told, more hands take them off the conveyor and put them on a moving ribbon of packaging film, aiming to land the slippery bundle between two printed marks. The ribbon of film is drawn into a trough that folds it over and is gripped by heated wheels which fuses the film together. A print head puts on the sell-by date then a hot stamping die fuses the top and bottom of the pack between the sausages then a hot knife slices the film into individual packets. The final stages are another human visually checks and squeezes the packs by hand. If there is an obvious fault such as sausage meat coming through it the seal it it is binned. No air should get in or out of a properly sealed pack of sausages so it will resist a hard squeeze; so any packet that you can compress by hand gets binned too. A human finger tugs on the long seam to check that it's good and will last the journey to the chiller in the store before the packet is flipped over on the belt to show it has been checked. 

Next an x-ray machine looks for any metal or plastic and scales check for under or overweight anomaly. If so, an air ram pushes the suspect packet into a dump bin. Digital screens record the through-put and the 'giveaway' if the sausages are running slightly overweight. Finally human hands take the packets off the line and put them into grocery crates, which are often wet and warm from the massive dishwasher they've been put through. Each crate is skated down a roller table to be weighed to ensure it has the right number of packets and putting a crate on the scale table automatically prints a crate label with a tracing number and a tally of the pallet load. Over the course of the day I did all these roles but it was by happenstance rather than the line managers' intent to imbue me with sausage making skills. 

In the downtime I would look over these machines with their thousands of parts and complex electronics very carefully until the line manager would wave me away. I consider them to be as complex and as precise as a movie camera. In fact several cameras are used to control the process, with x-ray and IR images read by AI software ensuring package conformity. But here the machine's technicians don't swan about in their Arc'teryx jackets while sipping the latte made at craft services but wear blue boiler-suits and helmets and grope though animal grease clogged gears to find the broken parts. They are not the 'camera gods' of the movie business.

During my induction I was told we agency workers were being hired because the factory had to fill an order of 120,000 packs of sausages for a leading supermarket which would take about ten days. At the head of the line a wipe-off board charted our output from starting today's shift at 6:00 am to its end at 4:00 pm. On my first day it suffered a series of mishaps from broken film, jammed cutters and underweight stuffing, so by the time I joined the line at noon having completed my Level 2 food safety course, they had only done 200 units. We were waiting on an engineer but they were busy on another machine so after a while of standing around, a line manager took us off to another production line where I piled cubes of meat into a foil tub. The meat was frozen so within a few minutes my fingers were numb but the tubs had to be separated in their stacks, which is not easy with slippery rubber gloves on.

I wondered if the benefits of 'Taylorism'; the practise of breaking skilled jobs down into repetitive un-skilled parts, the very basis of the production line model, is proving to be a bad idea in an economic crisis. If making sausages here were done by teams well-versed in their machines and knew how to clear them, reset them and so on, and they all worked as a interchangeable team on every step of the line, they'd probably make many more and better sausages for the price. But when you have large numbers of unskilled workers they become a liability rather than an asset when you have nothing for them to do because your supply chain has broken. We have seen that the movie business has responded to the crisis with hundreds of costumers and prop-makers switching quickly to using their skills and cottage workshops for making scrubs and protective equipment like face shields and masks.  Because of the cameras everywhere I thought against taking one of the empty sausage packets as a memento like my DVD collection of the films I've worked on so I hope people enjoy those sausages. 

Starting the next day the sausage machine broken down again on the night-shift, so I got put onto a line putting small oven-ready joints into a foil tin with a sprig of rosemary on top. These herbs had come frozen from Kenya. I pulled a rubber band over a sloppy slab of meat. Another hand stuck in a rosemary sprig and another pair of hands put on the second band. After pulling on bands for an hour I had broken the skin and had blisters on my fingertips, despite my wearing two pairs of rubber gloves. 

Next to me there was a line in the morning making a similar oven-ready joint with three pats of butter set in cuts in the skin for an upscale supermarket. In the afternoon the line's packaging switched to the factory's own brand. The only difference I could see was the packaging film was changed. With one factory making many different brands, the idea of 'premium brands' is patently a falsehood as far as many food products go. The workers are the same, the process is the same, the raw ingredients are the same. The recipes might change but not significantly to justify the price. 

I had read on the news that since the lockdown began the factory had seen a 35% surge in product demand but also had lost a lot of employees who were either self-isolating or off sick. After a couple of days my supervisor asked if I would work on the bank holiday for double-time. I naturally agreed. I could see as she jotted me down on her clipboard that of the usual 30 people on that line, ten were marked 'sick'. I had heard people coughing in the locker rooms but I can't tell if that's a smokers' cough or a corona virus dry cough. But then who I am really fearful of is the asymptomatic carrier. 

My first day had started with a dull Powerpoint presentation (in the trainer's opinion) about food safety and the factory's very strict and sensible rules about bringing any allergens (there are 14 of them which have to listed on the food packets), no jewellery and no cameras allowed inside the plant. Our lead trainer told us several times that this would presentation would bore us but it had to be done. I noticed the slides about Covid 19 got skipped over quickly and the print was too small to read anyway. There was more emphasis put on challenging any strangers without an ID badge or wearing white coats if they were seen on the factory floor, this was clearly about animal rights activists. Each slide was translated into Portuguese for several women sitting together in the group. We were given some simple contact forms to complete and I overhead, as they did too, each person being quickly asked what they did before coming here and if they'd ever worked for the company before. One chap was a fairground worker, one a casual labourer, both were put out of work by CV19. Most of the others had been sent by the job centre and their postures and reactions to the training questions began to shape an opinion they didn't really want to be there. I had been told by the agency to bring my ID to the induction but a small cohort claimed they hadn't been told this and so they hadn't any ID. The trainer wearily but firmly said they could complete this induction but they couldn't work, or get paid, until the company saw their ID to which their reaction wasn't indignation to this denial but some relief.

I remember from my community development work several government reports had found extremely low levels of entrepreneurship in Suffolk with multi-generational worklessness and other social ills in Lowestoft. Amongst young people the main priority was to “escape” the area and I've always sensed an air of despair in places like it. The area's educational attainment has long lagged behind the national average and with traditional low-skilled jobs fast disappearing, the levels of unemployment has soared. The demand for low-skilled but motivated workers for many years has been filled by migrant workers. The trainer said 30 languages were spoken in the plant, I could see signage everywhere in English, Polish and Portuguese. The factory has been a case-study for 'best practise' in employing migrant workers. It now has a recruiting office in Lisbon and several welfare officers who aid new arrivals in Great Yarmouth with finding accommodation, opening bank accounts and so on. The lads from the job centre looked at the cohort of Portuguese women - who incidentally were black - and one said it wasn't so bad in their part of Lowestoft but in Yarmouth they "had taken over". 

I was issued a yellow hard hat that identified me as temporary worker, wellington boots, a hairnet, earplugs and a white coat. The factory is very strict about what can be and can't be worn in each area. You must don your boots, hairnet and helmet in the locker room before collecting a coat from the stores. If you have any facial hair more than five o'clock shadow you must wear a snood too. When suited up you must wash your hands and your boots in the floor scrubber as you enter the factory floor and go to your production line and done further personal protection equipment (PPE). If you're working with any ingredients that are allergens you must wear yellow gloves, sleeves and aprons. If you're working on a allergen-free product you wear blue ones. If you're pulled off one line to work on another you must change your PPE. 

 

When I left the factory floor on a break I took off my apron and gloves but I forgot to remove my sleeves but was immediately stopped by a colleague in the corridor to the canteen and told to bin them. I have found the factory workers and managers are all pretty hot on all this, there's no expose of failings here, but here are numerous bottlenecks where people gather in the corridors, the canteen, the time-clocks, where no amount of 2 metre floor marking can make a difference. If we all stood 2 metres apart at the time-clock, the queue would snake all the way to the car parks. There are sanitisers everywhere but the touch-points of handrails on the stairs and doors, and everyone sitting together in the double-decker buses the company charters are things no-one in this industry can do much about. 

After a couple of days I began to appreciate the little luxuries I have had working on film sets. Compared to office jobs I've had, film sets are pretty tough but I've never been one to complain except for the long hours and fatigue making it dangerous to drive home. Filmmaking is often cold and wet, the hours are unpredictable, you can be on your feet all day humping heavy stuff around if you're in grip, camera, electrics and all the art department. Now I can tell you that food processing is all that as well but unlike a film studio:
  • You can't use a phone or bring it to work.
  • You can't wear a watch or any kind of jewellery except a wedding band. 
  • You can't have any food, snacks, nothing, except eaten in the canteen on your break.
  • You're only allowed 3 x 20 minute breaks in a ten-hour day.
  • You must first change out of your boots and coat to use the toilet, but you can only change in the locker room; so a 20 minute break becomes a 10 minute one. 
  • Like movie honey-wagons, you don't want to use the factory toilets. 
  • You have to wash your hands going in and out of the production floor, so that's another two minutes off your break. 
  • You can't carry any pens, any tools or knives. Nothing can be brought onto the floor other than company issued.
  • A hard hat and ear protection is mandatory and must be worn constantly. Even normal conversation has to had by shouting. Urgent commands are screamed at you. 
  • The production floor room working temperature is 10 degrees celsius or 50 Fahrenheit requiring warm clothing. But the work is heavy, so you sweat, then you get cold. 
  • The product you're handling is either wet, frozen or chilled so your hands are constantly numb. 
  • Every square foot of the floor is wet and greasy. It often slopes so all the gack on the floor flows into drains which are constantly blocking.
  • Nothing is ergonomic. You will bump your head constantly on machinery. You might need to stand beside a conveyor but can't belly up to it but must work at arms length because there's a motor or dangerous moving part where you're told to stand. 
On my third day when I got to the sausage production line I found the sausage machine had been wrapped in plastic but no one had told me anything whether we would be continuing on it. I began to wonder if I was missing something. In the film industry I am used to a 'call sheet'; a common work order for everyone to see what elements are needed for the day's work and when. I found turning up unsure of where and what I would be doing was bewildering. I couldn't see any difficulty in any factory sending employees a SMS confirming start time, potential function, even an encouraging messages like "10,000 sausages yesterday, you really smashed it, thank you!" when you clocked-in. Though seeming a bit trite it would mean something; that someone noticed. 

I overheard the sausage order had been completed over the weekend so I hung out with the other line workers consciously trying to be obviously unemployed. Then a line manager came and beckoned us over with a finger to follow him to a different part of the factory. He didn't introduce himself but led me away from the packing lines deeper into the centre of the factory where the butchery happens. Where it not for his helmet being white instead of yellow, I would have got lost. I had no idea where I was going. Nowhere in the factory is a map on the wall nor are any of the pillars or doors given numbers, which is pretty much standard practise elsewhere. Perhaps it is to disorientate people if they shouldn't be there. When he stopped to tell someone the agency staff were there I could tell he was a Suffolk boi. 

Around us standing on a gantry above were dozens of men and women slicing at turkeys being carried past them on a conveyor. Each bird was nominally at least six kilos. I was told by another line manager later they don't buy them from the farmers any smaller than that but these were actually about ten kilos each. The cutting crew were hacking off the wings and drumsticks and thighs which dropped into another conveyor below them. The butchers stood like medieval knights on battlements in their snoods and chainmail aprons and gloves. Beside their stations there was a v-shaped knife steel so they would slash through the skin and bone of a bird carcass, swipe the knife through the steel 'v' then slash the next bird. The various cuts were carried away by a conveyor beneath them to be dropped into bins where porters wheeled them over to another line where they would be butchered into smaller cuts.

I was told to stand by a dump bin that was the size of a car boot but made of stainless steel. In it was both thighs and drumsticks. Each drumstick was the size of a bowling pin and I had to reach into the bin for a lucky dip whether I got a thigh or a drum stick and throw it into a pair of parallel conveyor belts; aim for the left one with drumsticks and the right one for thighs. I thought it absurd that the engineers of this huge machine had thought my hands and my back repeatedly bending deeply into the dump tank was the only mechanism that could feed the body parts into the conveyor. It was also perverse that I could not stand close to the belts because of the low ceiling of the belt overhead so I had to throw the lumps of flesh into the gaping maw of the conveyor like a fairground attraction from six feet away, my aiming field narrowed by two ducts in my way. I don't know what happens if I hit the wrong conveyer belt but a few times the slabs of carcass skipped on landing and went over to the other belt, or onto the floor. After an hour my back was screaming and my hands were frozen but my aim was getting really good but as soon as the bin was empty, a porter quickly came with another on a pallet truck. I recalled that the trainer told me he had worked on this line since he started at the factory. He was 36 now and had done it for 16 years but arthritis in his shoulder and wrists had taken him off the line. 

If the butchers on this gantry couldn't keep up with what I supplied them, the missed parts dropped back into a bin where the porter had collected them from. It was a Sisyphean task because there was no reward for working faster but I could not see if the butchers were keeping up with me or I wasn't keeping up with them. Once the line manager came round and shouted "go slower, they're all being f**king lazy bastards today..." but I already knew that as I heard the dump tank filling with some bodies I'd only loaded on a few minutes earlier. Sometimes a bird was identifiable from a million others like it because it might have huge dark spots on the skin. This is because birds, like humans, come in different colours. Those spots were where its dark feathers were plucked from its skin. 


I haven't been into the killing shed where the captive bolt guns despatch the animals so this part of the factory is the noisiest work environment I've ever been in, apart from a quarry. I am not surprised that the videos I can find online of poultry processing plants are all silent or with up-tempo electronic music accompanying demonstrations of buzz saws that chop off birds feet (the hocks) or the guillotines that chop off their heads with what must be a audible crunch. The underlying rumbling bass sound you can hear on the production floor is the roar of the chilling plant keeping the air cold. There is a rapid constant random thumping and splotch-splotch sound of wet meat hitting the dump bins like a low tom-tom and a hi-hat clanging when the carcasses hit steel trays and butcher tables which crash like cymbals. The empty dump tanks ring like gongs when banged as they are moved by the porters. The chain drives of the conveyors clank rhythmically and you can hear the swish-swish-clack of knives cutting meat and hitting steels in time with the conveyors. The butchers and the line managers shout at each other in various languages over the din and because there is so much noise, the porters driving electric pallet trucks use their horns more than a New Delhi taxi driver. If you dawdle in crossing their lane they appear to delight in driving up behind people then leaning long on the horn to make you jump out of the way. This soundscape is muffled though an inch of foam stuffed in your ears so the world sounds like being underwater and all you can hear above it is your own breathing and your thoughts. Occasionally a foreign sound permeates the din whenever a stack of crates falls over or a full bin is dropped the workers jeer in their colleagues' misfortune and cheer in the hope that the line might stop and give them respite. 

Neuroscientist Dr. David Rock identified five innate needs in social situations and work. These five needs are called the SCARF model:
  • Status: meaning our relative importance to others
  • Certainty: our ability to predict what will happen in the future
  • Autonomy: our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: our sense of security with others
  • Fairness: our perception of fair exchanges between people
Survey data commissioned by B2B publisher Sift shows that UK employees are being failed in almost all areas of the SCRAF model:
  • More than half said they are left guessing when it comes to the contribution they make to their employer (relatedness, autonomy and certainty).
  • 41% of respondents said their options for career progression weren’t communicated to them clearly (certainty).
  • Only one in 12 employees (8%) have regular meetings with their manager (relatedness).
  • 29% of staff don’t think their appraisals are fair (fairness).
  • 11.8 million workers feel their skills are not properly utilised (fairness and status).
These five social domains are thought to activate the same threat and reward responses in our brain that we rely on for physical survival. This "primitive" reaction helps to explain the strong emotional reactions that we may have to social situations – and why it's often hard to control them. It's instinct, and unfortunately we can't just "turn it off." For example, when we are left out of an activity, we might perceive it as a threat to our status and relatedness. This response can stimulate the same region of the brain as physical pain. In other words, our brain is sending out the signal that we're in danger. So when we feel threatened – either physically or socially – the release of cortisol affects our creativity and productivity. We literally can't think straight, and this increases the feeling of being threatened. On the plus side, when we feel rewarded like when we receive praise for our work, our brains release dopamine; the happy hormone. Of course we want more of that kind of crack cocaine so we seek out ways to be rewarded again and again.

After an hour of this another manager appeared and waved at me to follow him. We walked across the factory to another area curtained off because the temperature in here was even lower, this was the chilling line. We were lined up alongside a double-deck conveyor which was laid out like a branch line from an overhead track for carrying whole turkeys hung by leg clamps. Along the conveyor were stations with tables. We were assigned a table each and told to wait. The manager then left without another word. Then above us the track began to move and soon it was full of dangling freshly killed birds that had been eviscerated and plucked. Under the track ran a gutter to stop them dripping on us, but the birds shed droplets that would hit the sheet metal and atomise so the air smelled of blood. The men (they were all men) on the line seemed they knew what was coming. The manager appeared with a crate marked 'trussing' and we changed our PPE. A couple of old hands obviously knew the score and appeared wearing heavy white PVC aprons instead of the thin polythene I had. I signed to to a co-worker where do you get the aprons? He pointed to a line of pegs at the back of the room but there wasn't any aprons there. The manager came back and asked for my badge. He commented that my nom de guerre was the same as his, so I'll call him Daniel. I asked him what I would be doing now. He said as soon as the birds got onto our conveyor he'd show me. He asked me if I was English and then enquired where I lived which prompted asking what did I do before? I explained (to keep it simple) that I worked in set construction. Daniel said he did that once as a volunteer at his local theatre and he had loved it. "But I've been here 18 years now, since I was sixteen." He added he'd been made a supervisor a year ago so it wasn't a bad life. He then shouted to the assembled workers; "we've got fifty minutes of birds, then a break, then there's another fifty minute load, then a ten minute load." The men murmured in understanding. 

A shout went up as the double-deck conveyor started up. The lower deck ran towards me and the upper deck moved away, so it seemed obvious what I had to do involved lifting something from one to the other. The lower deck began to fill with turkeys, about the usual Christmas size at first, and Daniel took one off and showed me there was a cut in the skin "just above the arsehole" which I should truss the birds' legs in. The birds had been living only 40 minutes before he told me when I asked. I tried to work out a system. I had to pull the bird off the conveyor by whatever limb was offered; a leg, wing or neck, and orientate it on the table so you could grasp and push down on both legs like a dual-joystick controller and then push both forward and pull the skin flap over the ends of the legs and cross one under. This was harder than Daniel made it seem. The legs resisted movement unless you pushed down really hard, presumably tearing some ligaments inside their body, and the end of the legs where the feet had been cut off had razor sharp bones. I began to work out the minimum effort this routine needed as each bird coming to me at waist level was three to four kilos and the upper conveyor was at eye level so if I kept up this rate I would have lifted a tonne of birds. The variety in the birds was far from uniform. Soon the birds coming were much bigger than for a domestic oven, I assume there is big carvery market for turkeys too. I was thankful that I was near the end of the line so the frequency of the birds passing me was less than the men ahead. But I was also the back-stop. One man at the end had the dual task of sweeping missed birds off the end into a bin or trussing them but rather than do that, he would slide the birds underarm back up the conveyor like a bowling ball if there wasn't another bird coming down. It seems the extremely low friction of the slimy conveyor and his throwing strength reached equilibrium at my station which was the apogee of probably their last flight. I got into the routine and the man on the opposite side of me worked out wordlessly that if two birds came to us together, I'd go for the front one and he'd take the back but otherwise the birds came spaced apart so we could alternate. Sometimes I had to break my rhythm because there wasn't space on the upper conveyor. I also learned to ensure the birds landed lengthways on the upper conveyor otherwise their long neck would hang down off the belt and slap the back of the men ahead. This displeasure, and any kind of attention getting between the men was usually signalled by throwing lumps of skin.

There's was only one clock on the factory floor that I could see from my place on a line and as phones and watches aren't allowed, there's no way to know what time it is so it might have been an hour or just a half when Daniel came back to the line and saw the back-stop bin was almost filled. He began shouting at all the line workers: "I don't know which one of you it is but I know it's happening; some of you are slowing down when my back is turned" and variations on that theme. There was a pause in the flow of birds coming down the line so Daniel threw the birds up the conveyor and we all took them off. Then the line stopped and Daniel signalled it was our break waving ten fingers twice to say it was twenty minutes. As there was no clock to see, I wondered what time it was this countdown would start. I noticed that the men on the trussing line kept going to look through the door to another shed. I found out later here was where the birds were being scalded and stripped of feathers. Daniel later told me they were looking to see if the line was still being loaded. If it stopped, our work would end twenty minutes later. 

Back outside beyond the hand-washing stations I went to the stores room where coats were handed out at the beginning of the shift as my coat and my own clothes underneath were sodden with turkey brine. I could not wear the coat in the canteen, nor could I put it in my locker when wet as my belongings were in there. The stores were closed but I saw a cleaner and asked her, she took me to the back door of the stores and fetched me another. She didn't speak much English. This of course had eaten into my break time but I went to the canteen and had a coffee and a bacon roll, since it was subsidised this was only £1.85 and I ate quickly, checked my email and went back to my locker to don my coat and PPE. I tried to find the trussing line but I was still unfamiliar with the factory layout and nothing was marked; so I followed a line of carcasses coming out of the chiller and found the trussing room when the line was already moving. Daniel saw me and held up his stopwatch; "24 minutes" he said. I told him I'd gotten lost. He replied "you'll be alright, I'm not reporting it." I quickly dissipated my indignation as he plainly wished to continue our conversation. "Don't mind me shouting earlier. It's hard to be heard as I've got a sore throat".

Based on my first week there I conclude there is no way food factory workers can keep two metres apart from each other or observe any kind of realistic social distancing. 

It may not be as risky as a hospital but a food packing factory is still a confined place with hundreds of people in one room who can potentially be exposed to an asymptomatic carrier. Despite extreme sanitation measures being standard practise anyway, food production lines just can't function if people are not at their station; the machines are just not built that way. You can't work from home. I wonder if any of the factory's admin staff are. 

All the people who are working in food packing factories to keep supermarkets stocked, they deserve some applause as well as they're putting their life on the line too. To be honest I'm frightened of catching the virus by working here because the economic incentive will mean people will work if they're not feeling well.

Personally I think it would a good idea if supermarkets stopped stocking their full ranges of fifteen kinds of everything and the factories dropped some products for now. They should concentrate on a basic range that provides essential nutrition which can be made on production lines where the risks can be reduced or at least isolated and the insane amount of food-miles and the need for labour is minimised as much as possible. The truth about mass-produced meat is probably the best argument for vegetarianism there is. I personally won't give up meat entirely but I do now understand the real price of it, both human and animal.  I would like my sausages to come from my local butcher's backroom than some place up to 500 miles away.  It might actually be very sensible to furlough meat processing workers where we can, once the output of the bird farmers is cleared. Our social safety net, our economy and our diet will have to change in order to ensure society has some resilience to a now well-established risks to civilisation like global warming, famine, strife and natural disasters. 

May 2020

I am resisting the urge to go on a rant as I process the news that I am no longer employed.

There was no advance notice, no exit interview, just a beep when my ID card wouldn't work as I left the factory at the end of my shift last night. The gate security person told me to go to the HR office where they asked for the card back and I was told my services are being dispensed with immediately. Requests for an explanation were rebuffed with referral to my employment agency, which made my antennae twitch there's more to this than meets the eye. 

By the time I got home my phone had received a text:

I regret to inform you that XXX XXXX no longer require you due poor performance.
Please let us know if you would like us to find another job or you would like to receive P45. Kind regards,

Now I fully understand that agency employees can be hired and released at will, and that is precisely why factories employ agency staff, but I consider this poor treatment is unacceptable and very bad practise. 

There had been rumours on the factory floor that the shifts were being cut which was confirmed when I saw a schedule yesterday. I asked a line supervisor at a break if it was true that agency staff were being released and she could only say "maybe", but I learned from a colleague this shift schedule comes out two weeks in advance.

This sudden termination seems quite odd to me because not a hour earlier the line manager had asked me if I was available to work on Saturday, to which I agreed.  On returning after taking a couple of days off to be tested for Covid-19 (negative but a whole other story) the line supervisor had offered me a shift on the previous Saturday to make make up my lost hours. I thought from their sympathetic offer I was regarded as an enthusiastic and diligent employee. Obviously I was foolish to ever think my labour was  wanted and needed here, what with there being an urgent crisis to keep the food supply chain going.

It must be getting boring for everyone hearing me say it but meat is toxic. I empathise with Morrissey and any vegans who call it murder, but the murder is more than the animals. Much of the meat industry is sick with symptoms of unrestrained greed, both financial and physical, of the producer and the consumer. The production of cheap meat pollutes the environment, destroys our own crucial habitats, maims its workers and poisons its consumers. The macro and micro politics of meat production also undermines society and economic relationships between countries. 

On the macro level; the president of the United States Donald Trump wants a trade deal with Britain that will allow poor welfare American meat stuffed with growth hormones to be sold in the UK where it is presently banned. It's not just the calories that makes Americans obese. On the micro level, the huge numbers of EU nationals brought to the UK to work in meat processing plants seethe from constant discrimination. If I learned anything on the factory floor; it is in general that many of my colleagues despise the British for a nebulous variety of reasons which stem from a long history of poor treatment such as the Windrush deportations, Theresa May's 'hostile environment' and the rhetoric over Brexit unleashing naked racism. One of the key planks of the hostile environment, the “right to rent” policy, caused landlords to discriminate against ethnic minority tenants when they otherwise would not. This history is quite indefensible. 

According to the British Meat Producers Association the industry struggles to recruit staff, both skilled butchers and unskilled packers, so it has actively recruited overseas for many years. My erstwhile employer has an office in Lisbon to meet its staffing needs. Apart from the work being physically hard and poorly paid, I now sense a deeper reason why British people won't take these jobs and why British people who will (like me) are not retained. It is simply that the management culture of the meat packing factory is utterly toxic. 

There are many signs that workplace has a toxic workplace culture:

* Company core values do not serve as the basis for how the organisation functions.
* Employee suggestions are discarded. People are afraid to give honest feedback.
* Micromanaging -Little to no autonomy is given to employees in performing their jobs.
* Blaming and punishment from management is the norm.
* Excessive absenteeism, illness and high employee turn over.
* Overworking is a badge of honor and is expected.
* Little or strained interaction between employees and management.
* Gossiping and/or social cliques.
* Favouritism and office politics.
* Aggressive or bullying behaviour.

Out of those 10 I could easily present a solid case for 5 of those, the rest can be inferred but I didn't stay there long enough to collect robust evidence.  No autonomy on how to do your job was a given. I found any suggestions were rebuffed and the answer was always the same; "work faster". There was no company suggestion box anywhere. The founder of the company I was told once said: "I don't need good machines, I just need good people". I don't know how they expected to keep them if turnover is 20% per year across the industry. 

June of this year marks 40 years since I first brought home a pay packet and what I have learned in a huge variety of work over that time is echoed by Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi, a social anthropologist and MD, who says that "people don't leave jobs, they leave toxic work environments." Whenever I have found a relationship with an employer was unsatisfactory, it was not the tasks I was asked to do nor the wages I was given, but that my willingness to do sometimes very unpleasant things was equal to the value expressed in my doing it. 

However, in the month I survived wading in the blood and carnage there, I don't think a civil word was ever spoken to me. Every instruction was shouted, which cannot be excused by necessity because of the ear-splitting noise of the machinery, but because managers used their volume and language as a whip. I can't pin down why this 'stick' approach works better than the 'carrot' but there must be reasons why managers resort to it. I suspect that they too are beaten with some kind of stick over performance of their lines. Given the number of times the line broke down this week, I suspect it's easier to scapegoat employees and also occasionally execute the more dispensable ones to keep the others in line than tell their bosses what the real problems are.  

As an untrained, inexperienced, line worker I doubt I was as productive as someone who has done the job for several years, so I would always be the first to go if they needed to reduce staff, but I am insulted my diligence and effort to do my best wasn't recognised. But the longer I stayed there the more I learned. And if I was them, I would be cautious about employing natives who unlike the migrant worker have nothing to lose, except their job, by blowing the whistle. The migrant however would lose their livelihood and their right to remain and get blackballed in an industry dominated by just a few conglomerates. I doubt any would dare to post on Facebook. The only social media I can find which echoes my thoughts are by natives like myself. 

If we are to transform the production of meat into the sustainable, ethical industry that it can be, then consumers must flex their economic power and not buy 'cheap' meat from such producers.  The fact that the same factories make exactly the same products sold under different national brands like Sainsburys, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer and Tesco, and many others, means we can safely boycott all of those brands to have an effect.

Mid-May 2020

Last Friday I went for a shift at another local poultry factory. I knew from my previous experience at the factory which had hired then fired its agency staff I would hate it from the moment I got there. But in the belief you've got to make your own luck or karma I gritted my teeth and mentally got on with it. Nevertheless my corpus had a different reaction.

When I put the phone down on the employment agency I was thankful there wasn't going to be another unpaid four hour induction with a monotone delivered Powerpoint followed by a dispiriting walk-through of the facility. On the plus side the wage was higher than minimum wage rather than exactly minimum wage before and the shift was a longer ten-hour day though the employer clawed back 50 minutes of that, so I would potentially make £50 (£40 after tax) a week more than I had done before. It was depressing that this made a difference to me now but I was also aware this disgust was a sign of privilege. Unlike Withnail (and more like his flatmate Marwood); I wasn't going to count on a call from a cheroot vendor to pay my bills in the pandemic crisis. Despite the risks of working in a crowded factory, I was willing to try and understudy Constantine, for at least I would get out of the house and I would be paid. 

To show up on time at a 4:40 AM I drove on deserted roads lined by murky green hedgerows and the dew drenched fields glinted with points of fire from the emerging sun. Like Crow Crag, the factory sat at the end of a very minor road in a hollow to which the outside world would be oblivious. My optimism things were different here than at the other place snapped as soon as the electronic access keypad in the hut I was told to look for didn't work and my name wasn't on the list. After some phone calls by a security guard, who kept coughing, a clipboard was proffered to sign and I was handed an access card. The other people wiping the sleep from their eyes while waiting with me were likewise processed. A manager came and showed where to collect a hairnet then select a pair of wellingtons from a rack, which were randomly sized, and I was handed a white coat and some clean but torn cotton gloves. After donning this clobber I was taken to the production line - through the familiar boot and hand-wash stations - where I put on another layer of plastic aprons, sleeves and gloves to protect me from all that muck and oomska and protect the consumer from mine.
This production line here was managed by someone I'll call Big Daddy because truth be told he's a relative of friend. That friend had heard of my tribulations at the previous factory and offered to put in a word for me here. I had actually refused at first but when the employment agency asked if I was interested in going there, I figured the gods had conspired against me so I told my contact I was coming. Big Daddy lives up to his name because he really should be signed up by a casting agency; Geoff Woad would be scared of his huge frame, deep voice, massive arms with full-sleeve tattoos and huge feet that could easily kick a fork-lift out of the way if it crossed in front of him. The size of his balls did not require imagination.

The task I was assigned was to de-skin hastily and roughly butchered portions of chicken thighs, legs and breasts that came bagged in stacked crates. Big Daddy told me it's easiest if you start where a bone has been cut. You grasp the portion with one hand and insert your thumb of your other hand at the cut bone, then pull down the skin like debagging a prep-schooler and then you throw the skin in one tub and the corpse onto the moving belt where trimmers will tidy it up before it goes to the supermarket to be bought along with garlic, rosemary and salt. 

I have quickly made a few observations on chicken anatomy. The skin is only attached to the body in a few places like around the ankle of the leg and it has a weak adhesion to the flesh but in some places it is firmly glued to the meat by the fat underneath. Corn-fed chickens have yellow skin and reddish meat and are much fatter than organic chickens. Under the factory lights the organic meat has a blue-green cast, like the dawn of my day. Being leaner, organic chickens are much easier to skin. I recognised from the tagging system I'd seen before that this meat was a hold-over from a prior production run. There's nothing wrong with this at all, the traceability and monitoring of everything is exacting, but I suppose if they have orders for 10,000 portions but more live birds come in that day than they need, they can't keep the birds alive on the lorry so they're slaughtered and then held in a cold-store. I should add a few zeros as this factory slaughters 130,000 birds a day. At first the baskets we were receiving were marked 'corn-fed' then came some labelled 'organic'. I didn't see any break in the line so I showed the tag on the crate to a colleague and he nodded it was okay. So I guess if you are buying plain 'chicken' portions for say a catering establishment, they might be corn-fed or it might be organic, depending on the over-supply of birds that day. I wonder if you can you 'Taste the Difference'?

I knew enough of the language to know the crowd around me on the line were all Portuguese or Eastern Europeans but there wasn't much chatter besides "bom dia". My colleagues seemed happy to be here, why couldn't I be happy? I asked myself. By 06:00 AM a few more faces had joined the line and Big Daddy showed them what to do. He came and asked me how I was doing and I said I was okay but in truth I could see I could not do this as fast as the other workers. Big Daddy told me "don't go too fast; my thumbs swelled up to twice their size when I did first did this..." I appreciated the warning because from the second hand of the clocks on the walls (plenty of them here unlike the other factory) I could see it was taking me about ten seconds to complete a portion, whereas my colleagues could do it in three. Big Daddy it seemed ran the whole floor and he went round the room to all the other lines joking and joshing with the men and women but when he was gone another under-manager came and I could see she was watching me. She came over and said "go faster. You do it too slow". She grabbed a piece and showed me where to jab my thumb and pull down. I nodded in understanding and made an effort to speed up. She seemed to approve but I felt this attempt to speed up was actually slowing me down as getting a secure grip on the portion took a nanosecond longer and my 'pull' was not as effective if I didn't have a good grip. I left more skin on the portion this way. But my hands appeared to be moving faster so she walked away. But soon the only sensation in my hands was the lack of any. As the meat was chilled and the cotton gloves gave no insulation; my fingers were soon as numb as a January morning. 

My rubber gloves had ripped open and the cotton was soaking up the freezing cold blood so I went and got another pair and put on another pair extra in case it helped but after two hours of grasping cold flesh, I was now struggling to flex my fingers. It's true that they say you can feel things in your bones. The joints on my right hand, usually the middle finger, often twinge before it rains and when my extremities are cold I can feel in my wrists the hundreds of times I fell on my hands when trying to perfect a kick-flip or aerial on my skateboard. It's never a problem except when it's cold. But the ache in my wrist was growing from a dull numbness to making me wince every time I pulled the skin from the portions, and soon a stabbing pain was shooting up my arm.
Big Daddy came by on his peregrinations and I decided it was time to see if my contact had got me any clout. I motioned him over. I thought of telling him that my thumbs had gone weird but I took the coward's way out and said "I'm not doing very well at this, is there something else I can do?" Big Daddy did not press me against the counter when he said "you can do the drumsticks" but beckoned me to follow to another room. There a chap was packing wrapped packs of thighs and drumsticks into crates for Tesco and Big Daddy told him to take my place on the skinning line. I felt a deep well of shame on seeing his crestfallen face. Here I thought I was on familiar ground; the packaging machine would spit out onto the conveyor four packs of drumsticks every twenty seconds, which gave me enough time to pull them off the belt, put each four in the crate and then carry the crate to to another conveyor belt which took them to be loaded onto trucks for Tescos.

I settled into a routine and wondered if this would relieve the numbness in my hands. My right wrist was still hurting every time I lifted the one kilo packets but the pain was not increasing. Next to me was a line spewing packets of smaller cuts. The young man on the line had to pack eight packets into each crate but the machine seemed capable of producing a packet a second so he was sometimes struggling to keep up. Then the supply would slow down and he'd catch up again. At times he'd shout to the other people up the line some Ukrainian oaths to make them slow down. At this stage in production, the crate packer is the last bastion of quality control. If any packets are mis-labeled or the film is not sealed, we are supposed to toss them into 're-work' crates kept beside the line. Suddenly his line began to miss out every other packet at wrapping it in film and as he had to divert them from the packing trays, the catch-all area began to pile up with packets and some began tumbling onto the ground. That was the last straw, as any packet that touches the floor cannot be put back on the line. It is now waste and a irrecoverable loss, even picking it off the floor is verboten. The under-manager ran over and waved me over to help him. Without saying anything we devised a strategy that I would pull out the unwrapped packets and he would pack the wrapped packets. But then suddenly my own catch-all area was overflowing too. We danced between the two conveyor belts, me fetching his 're-work' crates and he fetching packing crates and then alternating with me on my line.
We managed to keep up and very soon I was sweating but my hands were still hurting. The weight of the packets and crates would be nothing in normal circumstances but repeating the same action thirty times a minute for several hours was more than my frozen tendons could manage from a standing start. Eventually the line's under-manager signalled a break as the line stopped. I turned to follow everyone that was leaving wondering where do we go? My colleague and the others scurried away as fast as they could. I wondered where is the canteen? I retraced my steps from the morning. Unlike the other factory, there seems no restriction on wearing your boots outside so I took off all my PPE and my coat and followed the crowd streaming out of the turnstiles into the car park. It seems most of the workers use their cars as their refuge and I could see many eating from plastic boxes and drinking from thermoses. I hadn't packed any lunch so I looked for the canteen. When I found it I queued for five minutes to go in because only one person could to the counter at a time. By the time I'd wolfed down my bacon bap and drunk my coffee and found my way back to the line, the line was moving again. "Twenty minutes break" shouted the under-manager (over the noise). I apologised; "I got lost finding my way back" I truthfully told her but she looked at me with disbelief.

As the hours passed the cycle of the lines ebbed and flowed. My colleague and I would team up to help each other when things got crazy, then we'd go back to our own lines when they died down. But to keep up with the line I had to grip each of the packets between finger and thumb and fling them into the crate and this flexing was in direct opposition to the tendons in my hand which had now cramped up and raised on the back of my hand like the bridge of a double bass. Also it started to become painfully obvious that while my left boot was a size 43, my right boot was a 42, and the small difference was enough to stub my big toe and the rest of them were feeling the cold from the factory floor. My feet were going numb and I felt I was standing on an ice block.
Another three hours passed and it was lunch time. At the boot station I spent a few minutes finding a matched pair then hobbled outside to my car and turned the engine on and ran the heater on my toes. I didn't fancy anything to eat from the canteen but I took the ten minutes I would have between disrobing and robing again to compose a text to my agency that I was having serious doubts I about my capacity, but not willingness, to continue this job but I would update them at the end of the shift at 15:30

By now the shooting pains in my hands was beginning to concern me this wasn't just fatigue but it could cause permanent damage or a persistent condition like carpal tunnel syndrome. Running my hands under hot water for a minute seemed to rejuvenate them, as did the heat on my toes, but it didn't take more than ten minutes back on the line for the pain to return to its old intensity.

Suddenly the packing line stopped and the under-manager waved it was finished and I was to follow her to another line. This one was similar to my morning's work as here I had to pick up portions from an incoming conveyor belt, de-skin them and cut away any excess fat and bone, then chuck them onto an outgoing belt. A pair of scissors was signed out to me. Big Daddy wasn't around and I felt that if I did ask for another assignment now, I would certainly be finished here regardless of my own decision. I figured that since we only had three hours left in the day, I would try to make it to the end.

The incoming belt supplying us came directly from a higher workstation where twenty butchers stood slicing portions off fresh carcasses which were held up by the body cavity that had been slipped over a line of upright chain-driven dildos. A butcher slashed at their assigned portion, spun the carcass around like a doner kebab and then the next butcher slashed off their portion until all there was left was the rib-cages that fell off the end as the chain turned under. What was novel on this line was all the workers except me wore plastic face shields to protect them from the virus, though we stood practically inches apart. However it was obvious to me there was no point to these shields since everyone was wearing them at a 45 degree angle so it didn't mist up with their breath and they could see what they were doing when they looked down. The men and women on the line were friendly to each other and the work was not too fast to speak to each other. The under-manager opposite me was next to a man from Lowestoft whom it sounded from the life story he was recounting to her was like mine. He'd been to the USA to work and had come back, his regular job had disappeared because of the virus so he'd come here. He wasn't cutting any faster than I was but some of the women around me could work at blistering speed. The under-manager occasionally grabbed portions from the outgoing line and shouted to everyone to observe the faults she found with it; bits of bone left behind, too much fat, blood clots and bruising that had to be cut away. I calculated that apart from sitting for ten minutes in the canteen and ten minutes in my car, I had been standing on my feet, and not stretching or walking, for nine hours. An aching pain had crept from my toes to my calves and was growing in my lower back and from my fingers to my shoulders too. My grasping and squeezing of the scissors was clumsy because my numb fingers gave no feedback to control them.
I remembered the last couple of miles of the Paris Marathon in 1982. Finishing around the same time as Joe Strummer, at the 13 mile mark I had begun to push myself through the wall of lactic acid that was building in my muscles and it seemed willpower was the deciding factor whether I would finish. I was encouraged by the first sight of the Eiffel Tower and willed myself into pushing harder and finishing with a sprint though every step on the cobblestones felt as if someone was hitting my toes with a hammer. Back here and now I willed myself on with an internal dialogue: "this pain is only temporary, it will stop when you stop but you're still alive aren't you? Keep going until the end, don't be shit." I looked up when I threw each portion on the belt to see how far the hands of the clock had moved to where I would be released. I remembered Big Daddy's words when I had asked him in the morning if the factory had been busy; "chicken don't stop" he said. Nor would I.

The bell rang and with fingers like clubs I tore off my hair net, gloves and apron and dashed to soak my hands in warm water. The feeling returned to my hands but I stumbled walking to the car as I couldn't feel my toes. I blasted them with the heater and when my equilibrium returned I composed a text to Big Daddy:

"Hi there, just to let you know I really appreciate you looking out for me and putting me on the drumsticks. But it feels like an old injury or something has flared up and now I can't grip anything without it being painful so I'm going to be giving it a rest for a bit and we'll see how it goes. I've told the agency this. Really great to meet you though. Thanks again"

Driving home through the green fields now basking in sunshine, I wondered if I had done the right thing. I braked to avoid a leaping pheasant and the pain in my toes shot up my leg. I've done many physically challenging jobs like getting fifty full filing cabinets up four flights of stairs where there's no lift, and I can do that once or twice in a week, but this day times five days a week for the foreseeable future made me face the truth it was a long time ago that I was going to be thirty in a month. A few minutes later the agency rang me (on speakerphone) and I briefly recounted the day and said I wouldn't go in tomorrow for the offered Saturday overtime shift but would let them know if I was willing to go back on Monday.

I've sent it now. "Further to the phone call we had; I can tell you that my hand has recovered a lot of its grip and the pain has been reduced with rest and analgesics but obviously it is not practical to continue in this placement as it would risk an industrial injury which would affect my employment there and elsewhere. I haven't seen a doctor because of CV19 and because I know the only advice and treatment is what I can do myself, i.e. rest it and take painkillers. An alternative placement is desired."

My body is a chicken in every sense of the word. 

June 2020

Local lockdown considered for Anglesey after coronavirus outbreak at meat factory


©Nat Bocking

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